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.
There is an even smaller subset of the tea party movement comprised of libertarian conservatives, representing a more developed intellectual tradition. Their goal is not just federalism but a minimal state at home and abroad. Their commitment to individual freedom -- defined as the absence of external constraint -- is nearly absolute. Taxation for the purpose of redistribution is theft. The national security state does not defend liberty; it threatens it. American global commitments are just another form of big government.
The closest this sect has come to serious political influence is Rand Paul's victory in Kentucky's Republican Senate primary this week. Paul has attempted to become more electable by distancing himself from the worst libertarian excesses. But there can be no doubt about Paul's political orientation. In an interview the day after his primary victory, Paul could not bring himself to endorse the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. "I think there's a lot to be desired in the Civil Rights -- and indeed the truth is," he sputtered, "I haven't read all through it, because it was passed 40 years ago and hadn't been a real pressing issue on the campaign on whether I'm going to vote for the Civil Rights Act." Earlier in his campaign, however, Paul explained his view that businesses should not be forced by government to adopt anti-discrimination rules. Because he is a libertarian, Paul is unable to embrace some of the largest moral achievements of recent American history.
Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government. Their objective is not the correction of error but the cultivation of contempt for government itself. There is a reason libertarianism has never been -- and likely will never be -- a national political force: because too many would find its utopia a nightmare.
Overreach is breeding overreach. The pendulum swings wider and wider.