Commentary Magazine


Tea Party v. Establishment — What’s Next?

Yesterday I was critical of Representatives Fleming and Harris for living in what I called a fantasyland, a dream world, in which they convinced themselves that the government shutdown and fight over the debt ceiling was a victory for the right. That is transparently not true; and if Messrs. Fleming and Harris believe it’s true then they are living on another planet.

But they hardly represent all, or even most, of conservatism, or even the Tea Party. For example, this morning on Bill Bennett’s (excellent) radio program I listened to Bennett’s interview with Representative Trey Gowdy, whose conservative credentials are beyond question. Mr. Gowdy spoke honestly and self-reflectively about what went wrong and what needs to be done going forward. According to Representative Gowdy, the mistake of House Republicans (and by implication Senator Cruz and his allies in the Senate) was that they took an unpopular law, the Affordable Care Act, and hurt themselves by going after it with an even more unpopular tactic — a willingness to shut down the government and not raise the debt ceiling if ObamaCare were not defunded.

That is by my lights precisely what happened, and what many people warned in advance would happen. For now, though, what matters most is to turn what happened into a “teachable moment,” to use a favorite phrase from President Obama.

I for one found Representative Gowdy’s candor and open-mindedness refreshing and encouraging. And as we move past the shutdown and the debt ceiling debacle, which inflamed passions on the right, it’s worth having people on both sides work toward bridging the divide that exists between the Tea Party and to so-called “establishment.”

To be sure, some of the divisions are significant and shouldn’t be glossed over (I for one certainly made my differences with Senator Cruz crystal clear). And both sides are of course free to critique the other, in the spirit of iron sharpening iron. Artificial rapprochements tend not to last. At the same time, it’s worth bearing in mind that the intra-conservative dispute we’ve just gone through wasn’t over ends but means. They were, at least in some important respects, tactical differences rather than strategic and substantive ones. Every conservative I know wants the Affordable Care Act undone; the question has always been how best to do that, and how best to mitigate the damage and strengthen the conservative cause given the political alignment that exists.

So yes, important differences – including differences over tone and temperament, over what is prudent and achievable, and what a genuine conservative cast of mind means – emerged during the last several weeks. Those differences are real and shouldn’t (and won’t) be ignored. But if conservatism is to be advanced, it will require some effort to find common ground and join in common cause. For those in each camp to appreciate what the other brings to the debate. We’ll see if that happens. My guess is it will, though it may require a bit more time for the intensity of this most recent battle to subside.

We’ll know soon enough.