So much ink has been expended and columns written analyzing just one small portion of the bigger picture at the close of most of the GOP Senate primaries since 2010. A bunch of pundits come out and say that the tea party is finished just about every time a Republican incumbent is re-nominated. Such was the case last week, when Kentucky Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trounced his challenger, businessman Matt Bevin. But should a conservative challenging the establishment win, many of these same pundits will come out and talk about how the tea party has taken over the Republican Party.
The truth, as usual, is more complicated than that.
The oversimplification of the ongoing conflict within the ranks of the GOP is what is mostly to blame for the consistency with which the pundits misanalyze it. The laziness with which the very term “tea party” is used to describe just about anyone who has a difference with the party’s leadership, and then lumping them all together to proclaim a “winner” and a “loser,” is unbecoming of most of those who are doing it. And while it is clear that there is a force on the right wing that needs to be reckoned with, it has become even clearer that most people totally misunderstand it.
Probably the greatest contributors to this misunderstanding of the tea party phenomenon are the very people who claim to represent it. A host of organizations purport to speak for the tea party. Do they? Nobody can say for sure. But the organizations represent so many different things that it’s ludicrous to think that any one, or even all, of them is in a position to speak for the self-identified tea partyers.
In his newsletter, The Transom, arguing against the idea that the only difference the tea party has with the establishment is style and attitude, Ben Domenech provides what he refers to as a “position cloud” for hypothetical remarks to a tea party event: “no more bailouts, no more Obamacare, no more Common Core, no more Congress living by different rules, no more welfare, no more food stamps, no more pork, no more subsidies, no more tariffs, don’t trust drones, Big Banks, Big Business, Big Government, George Washington, raw milk, open carry, why is Eric Holder not in jail, buy gold, the NSA is listening, Benghazi.” But the mistake he makes is projecting the views of those at a tea party event onto the rest of those who are or were unhappy with the party establishment about anything. And while a Tea Party Patriots rally might feature all or most of those positions, it is in no way indicative of the rest of the movement. Arguing otherwise brings to mind the legend of Pauline Kael, who was alleged to have been shocked when Richard Nixon won election because nobody she knew voted for him. (Consider this: the petition to Defund Obamacare that led to the government shutdown last year had 2 million signatures from across the entire U.S. McConnell, in his primary victory in a state that ranks somewhere near the middle of the country in registered voters, got more than 10 percent of that total.)
The only thing we can say with certainty is that the tea party started as a direct response to the massive government overreach that was the passing of Obamacare. So we know that has got to have something to do with it. Other than that, what do we have to analyze?
Tea party voters have only ever unseated three Senate incumbents. Indiana’s Dick Lugar was sent home, Alaska’s Lisa Murkowsky had to launch a write-in campaign to regain her seat, and while he wasn’t an incumbent senator, Mike Castle was turned away from a winnable seat despite being a former governor and an incumbent congressman from Delaware’s at-large district.
The commonality is that they just didn’t listen to their constituents. Voters saw them as out-of-touch politicos who thought that all they had to do was say they were Republican and that should be enough for the “little people.” This is what doomed them. Government’s spending of money we don’t have, and not feeling any accountability to voters (among other such things) were what launched the tea party movement. These Republicans, who were complicit and/or who displayed similar signs of arrogance toward the people they were representing, were disposed of as well.
But now, the very same organizations who claim to represent the people who hold these ideals have become a caricature of the establishment they rail against. From the raising of millions of dollars but directing very little towards actually helping elect the candidates they “support,” to pushing candidates like Bevin without offering any reason voters should support his candidacy other than the fact that he wasn’t named McConnell, they have become a new establishment — the anti-establishment establishment.
The tea party establishment often rails against the “intellectual elite,” saying that they don’t think the rank and file are smart enough to decide themselves what is best for them. A little introspection would serve them well. In Kentucky, all that made Matt Bevin the tea party candidate was the fact that third-party groups who have become the self-appointed definers of the tea party mantle said that he was. That Mitch McConnell wasn’t in sync with the tea party was another myth fueled by these same people. As Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out in NRO’s “The Corner,” the morning after McConnell’s win, self-identifying tea partyers supported the incumbent by a 53–33 margin. As he correctly sums it up: “Did the tea party lose last night? Some tea party groups did. Looking at the tea party as a bottom-up phenomenon, though, it looks like tea partiers got the candidate they wanted.”
In November, Senator McConnell told donors that he compared these third-party groups to a schoolyard bully. “You know how you deal with schoolyard bullies?” he said. “You punch them in the nose — and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The outside groups tried to make it look as though McConnell was talking about the tea party voters. They failed — and McConnell made good on his promise. But before writing an obituary on the tea party as a whole, we might just want to write off these groups, and accurately analyze what the movement is about.
Consistently, the tea party has almost always adhered to the Buckley rule (elect the “rightward-most electable candidate”) as William F. Buckley intended it; the establishment GOP as well as the third-party groups have not. And as long as the rightward-most electable candidate was not guilty of tuning out his/her constituents, s/he has come away the winner.
The tea party is alive and well.