Given the public disenchantment with voter-ignoring, big-government-loving Democrats in Congress and The White House, next year’s elections could do much to restore some measure of fiscal sanity and common sense to Washington. But that will happen only if Republican leaders and grassroots Tea Party activists work together effectively. How – and whether – the two reconcile their different priorities and views will have profound consequences for any effort to beat back the Democratic vision of an ever-expanding, ever-more-intrusive federal government.
In recent days, there have been news reports about growing tensions between the Tea Partiers and GOP leaders. That’s understandable, because their priorities and motivations differ. While Tea Partiers are passionate activists committed above all to smaller government and (often) traditional social values, GOP leaders’ primary commitment is to winning seats for the party. But for a partnership to work, both sides will have to grow up.
Let’s start with the party leaders. No doubt there are places where conservative Republicans simply cannot win – in many parts of the Northeast, for example. But occasionally, there’s a laziness problem. Party leaders fail to examine the available alternatives or think about new and exciting candidates. Often, they settle on the candidate with the highest office or the most name identification at an early stage in the process, ignoring lesser-knowns who might be able to ignite real enthusiasm among the electorate in an off-year election. For example, in a year like this one, where anti-government sentiment runs high, it was a real mistake for the NRSC prematurely to endorse Governor Charlie Crist in Florida’s Republican U.S. Senate primary, completely overlooking former Speaker Marco Rubio, who has taken the race by storm.
Nor should party leaders use candidate selection as a covert way to impose their own political preferences on the local electorate. Sometimes, GOP leaders are more moderate than the mass of Republican voters in their area. Seeing newly-minted activists through the more “sophisticated” eyes of political pros, they are occasionally suspicious of, or even appalled by, their rawness and undiluted conservatism. Some are even ashamed of them.
It’s worth asking whether that dynamic was at work in upstate New York, where GOP elders in a conservative-leaning district selected as their congressional candidate a person with pro-gay marriage, pro-choice, pro-stimulus views, who favored making it easier for unions to organize as a Republican congressional candidate. (She has subsequently been endorsed by the NRCC.) Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, one of the local party chairmen involved in the decision dismissively characterized the other, more conservative potential candidate as “unelectable” because he “uniformly stands for all the conservative values of the far right.”
No doubt there are times and places when the official’s assessment (however inartfully phrased) could be true. But surely there are more respectful and responsive ways to handle those delicate situations – especially in a district that’s been 60%+ Republican over the last decade. And there’s a world of difference between choosing an “electable” candidate and selecting one who is essentially a “slap in the face” to the party’s most hardworking, passionate constituency.
On the other hand, Tea Partiers need to be realistic, and understand the limitations of political passion and zeal. Plenty of congressional districts wouldn’t support even a second Ronald Reagan, simply because they are irremediably liberal. Rather than allowing the “best” to become the enemy of the “good enough,” activists could best further their cause by supporting the most conservative candidate who can win, rather than the most conservative candidate, period – when it means that candidate will surely lose.
Those who oppose such a course are prone to claim that insufficiently conservative Republicans are the functional equivalent of Democrats. But they are wrong, for one fundamental reason. Compared to the status quo, every Republican – of whatever stripe – who heads to Washington next year will ultimately empower the most fiscally-responsible wing of the party. After all, it wasn’t the election of far-left liberals, like Charlie Rangel in the House or Ted Kennedy in the Senate, who brought Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to power. Rangel and Kennedy had been in Washington forever. Rather, it was the Democratic “moderates” from battleground districts and states in 2006 and 2008 – people like Congressman Heath Shuler (D-NC) and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) – who ultimately handed the far-left Democratic congressional leadership the majorities needed to enact its agenda.
Let’s have no illusions. It’s predictable that, on occasion, Tea Partiers and Republican leaders will find themselves at odds. After all, they serve different functions and hold different priorities. But with good will and a commitment to fairness that builds trust on both sides, most disagreements can be resolved. That’s especially true when both sides remember that there is so much more that unites than divides them – above all, a commitment to returning government to its rightful place in American life, where it serves citizens rather than vice-versa.
Political power without principles is worthless. But principles alone – devoid of any political power to defend or enact them – don’t achieve much, either. If Tea Partiers and GOP leaders find a way to work together – with respect on both sides and without fear or suspicion on either – that will be the best test of whether a commitment to principle, rather than just petulance or the quest for pure power, is each side’s driving force.