WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Whenever I'm in the nation's capital, it's always entertaining to see government staff, aides, lobbyists and elected officials doing their thing. They can make you feel like an outsider -- unless, that is, you were there when Ronald Reagan was sworn in, doing then as they are doing now. Then you realize that they're just younger versions of yourself.
With age and experience comes a trace of wisdom. In talking to various Washington insiders over the last few days, I've noticed a predominant theme: The GOP establishment hasn't a clue how to manage the so-called Tea Party movement. And the Democrats are equally clueless as they try to profile and pigeonhole these new activists.
I've been closely watching Tea Partiers since about this time last year. I noticed early on that establishment Republican elected officials have been letting the Tea Party march right on past. These officeholders are afraid they'll be seen as radical if they associate with the protest movement.
Conventional Washington wisdom seems to have it that moderate, swing voters in the fall general elections will turn away from the GOP if the party ends up with nominees for Congress who are either self-identified as Tea Partiers or are somehow associated with them.
Consider this oddity: Sen. John McCain has long been cold-shouldered by the GOP establishment, which has thought of him as too liberal for the party's taste. Now he is suddenly viewed as a part of that very establishment, which is itself now deemed too liberal. Believe me when I tell you that the very notion of a spontaneous conservative grassroots movement that they can't get a handle on has this town's Republican operatives baffled.
The Democrats are even more in the dark. They have persuaded themselves that the Tea Party crowd is one and the same with the so-called "birthers," who believe President Obama was not born in the United States and should not be eligible to serve as president. The Democrats welcome the Tea Party because they believe it will divide the GOP and bring to the fore weaker and less experienced Republican candidates in November. Either that, they believe, or it will cause a big chunk of disenchanted Republican voters -- either establishment or Tea Party -- to sit out this year's general election altogether.
I love Washington -- it's in my blood. But I've been here so many times that I've come to see clearly that the capital city is one whose inhabitants talk almost exclusively among and about themselves. That was true when I was here in the 1980s and 1990s, it's true now, and it was probably true in early post-colonial days. Where else on earth do men still wear neckties to gatherings on Sunday night? It's an insulated company town that's only interested in the gossip and inside perspectives of the "company" -- politics and government.
What will become of the Tea Party movement? I suspect that in some cases, there will be Tea Party Republicans who will run against and clean the clocks of their Republican primary opponents. There will be other cases in which the Tea Party candidates will lose badly, either because they are little more than well-meaning amateurs or because their establishment GOP opponents have enough conservative bona fides to satisfy conservative voters.
Either way, the Tea Party will not split the GOP this year. The movement, though not as large as some like to portray it, is still a powerful force. The Tea Party is an indication of how heavy the voter turnout on the Republican side likely will be in November, regardless of who the GOP nominee might be for a given office.
I keep reading media reports that try to portray some Tea Partiers as racist. They keep insisting that alleged racial slurs were hurled at certain members of Congress when the health care bill was being considered. Much media, like many Beltway insiders, are characterizing as a racist-inspired fringe element what is in fact a loud manifestation of anger and fear over taxes, government growth, and possible abridgements of future liberty and security.
I don't buy it. The Tea Party may or may not be substantial enough to transform the GOP into a more conservative party. But my polling tells this: We are likely to see Republican primaries this year that will be contested as never before. And that means there could be an avalanche of Americans voting Republican in November.
The Tea Party effort is both symbolic and a catalyst. It will end up spurring a rush of voter intensity the GOP hasn't seen since 1994. Oh, yes, I liked this town a lot in those days.