WASHINGTON -- A specter is haunting the Republican Party -- though thankfully it is no longer the recently defeated Arlen Specter, who managed to be equally troublesome as both ally and foe. It is the specter of ideological overreach.
Some will immediately protest that President Obama and congressional leaders are the ones who are guilty of overreach. Which is also true. Tuesday was the latest in a series of elections that have punished not just incumbents but incumbents associated with the expansion of government. Even Democrat Mark Critz, the winner of this week's House special election in Pennsylvania, campaigned in opposition to health care reform.
That reform, judged purely as politics, will be remembered as a colossal strategic error. The bank and auto bailouts were unpopular but unavoidable. Health care reform was a challenge that Obama chased. Coming soon after a large Keynesian stimulus package, the creation of a new health entitlement ignited a national debate on the role of government, confirmed an image of Democratic profligacy and polarized the electorate -- all of which led to a backlash. If anyone can be considered the instigator of the tea party movement, it is Barack Obama.
Most of this reaction can be best described as Americans standing athwart the Democratic Congress, yelling Stop -- generally a useful enterprise. The problem comes when activists attempt to translate this tendency into a political philosophy.
The tea party movement, being resistant to systemization, is resistant to characterization. But in its simplest form (and there seems to be no other form), it might be called "constitutional conservatism." It adopts a rigorous hermeneutic: If the Constitution does not specifically mention it, the federal government isn't allowed to do it. This represents a kind of 10th Amendment fundamentalism -- a muscular form of states' rights that would undo much of the federal role since Franklin Roosevelt, perhaps since Abraham Lincoln.
This philosophy has the virtue of being easily explainable -- and the drawback of being impossible. The current federal role did not grow primarily because of the statist ambitions of liberals; it grew in response to democratic choices and global challenges. Federal power advanced to rescue the elderly from penury, to enforce civil rights laws, to establish a stable regulatory framework for a modern economy, to conduct a global Cold War. The "establishment" that advanced and maintained this federal role included Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. In many areas, the federal government has gone too far, becoming bloated and burdensome. But the federal role cannot be abandoned.