Saturday, November 06, 2010

election ii: the coming gop civil war

Many people are wondering if the new Republican majority will hang together or break up in internal squabbling. It looks like they won't have to wait long to find out. The challenge for a leadership position by Michelle Bachmann, a Tea Party-type congressman from Minnesota, may be only the first battle in a long and drawn-out war.

The problem is a simple one. Tea Party activists, many women and a some not even Republicans, played a disproportionate role in the GOP's recent success. Not surprisingly, they would like a seat at the table. By contrast, Messrs. Boehner Cantor et al., along with traditional operatives like Karl Rove, seem to have in mind something like a third Bush Administration, with business interests in the driver's seat and the Tea Party relegated to the sidelines, if that. This is partly a matter of symbolism and social class, but also a question of policy: as wild-eyed as they may sometimes seem to the Establishment, the Tea Party types actually have a fairly coherent set of concerns, including jobs, the deficit, and a smattering of social issues, and want them to be taken seriously.

As part of its strategy of shutting out the Tea Party, the GOP Establishment is attempting to put a particular spin on the election, under which mainstream candidates did well and those who had Tea Party baggage--Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada are the most frequently cited examples--were defeated. The only problem with this story is that it isn't really true. For one thing, several Tea Party favorites, notably Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky, were quite successful, while many more Establishment types (think Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman) weren't. For another, several of the Tea Party types appear to have lost, at least in part, because of indifference or worse on the part of GOP leaders. I spent several days as a volunteer for O'Donnell, and the only people I ever saw making calls wore jeans and T-shirts and seemed to be on a first-name basis with the candidate: most Party regulars appeared to be either indifferent or actively hostile. For their part the campaign activists appeared to have as little regard for the Republican leadership as for the Democrats, and in some cases even less.

There is a tendency to look at politics as linear in nature, with "extremists" on both sides and "moderates" occupying the center ground. I think it is somewhat more complicated than that. What I see, rather, are two complacent political establishments trying to turn mass movements to their advantage but so far failing to do so. First the Obama supporters ousted the Clintonite mainstream of their party and thought they had something different. They found out otherwise and abandoned the party in droves. If the Republican leadership takes a similar tack, they are likely to achieve a similar result. That doesn't mean that everything the Tea Party wants to do is correct, or even that all its members want the same thing. But there's no question that we are dealing with a serious mass movement--one largely responsible for the GOP comeback--and the Party ignores them at its peril.


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