Michael Gerson

Tea party leaders have been understandably reluctant to endorse a candidate likely to embarrass any movement elastic enough to include Hayworth. Both Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Jim DeMint have declared themselves officially neutral in the Arizona Republican primary. Sarah Palin has campaigned for McCain.

This skepticism is compounded by Hayworth's congressional record, which puts him in a select group among would-be tea party heroes. He is, I would bet, the only tea party candidate with a history of hosting fundraisers in lobbyist Jack Abramoff's sports skyboxes. How many other tea party revolutionaries have also been enthusiastic legislative earmarkers, or voted for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or supported the 2005 highway bill, which included the "bridge to nowhere"?

There are reasons that McCain is politically endangered. He is the Senate's most gifted practitioner of sudden, disproportionate anger. He often seems overly impressed by his own virtue. Many in Washington and Arizona would pay good money to see him humbled. His epic service is matched by epic flaws -- but an insufficient commitment to fiscal conservatism is not among them.

A primary loss might be good for McCain's soul. But it would be bad for his party and for the country. At his best, McCain is precisely what a senator should be -- independent, passionate, unawed by power, unmoved by influence. He has quickened national debates on torture, the environment, immigration, military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the budget process. He now stands accused of sidling to the right during a Republican primary -- of which he is guilty. But events of the last year have moved Republicans of every variety to the right, in reaction to the vast Obama overreach.

In contrast, Hayworth symbolizes the worst excesses of the tea party movement, without having displayed any of its redeeming fiscal virtues while in office. His candidacy presents a test. If the movement embraces politicians such as Hayworth, it will not only prove itself extreme; it will prove itself gullible.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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