Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tea Party

How the Midterms Vindicated Both the Establishment and the Grassroots

On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

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On Saturday night I opened the New York Times website and saw the headline I’d been waiting since last Tuesday to see. “With Fear of Being Sidelined, Tea Party Sees the Republican Rise as New Threat,” the Times declared, and I wondered why it took four days since the Republican landslide victory in the congressional midterms and coinciding gubernatorial races for the Times to find some way to spin the massive GOP victory as a Republican civil war.

Surely the Times had such a story ready to go; it always has such a story ready to go. Perhaps the paper’s editors wanted to wait for the Sunday edition to really make a splash by republishing essentially the same story they write about four thousand times a year. In any event, there it was, the crystallization of the unthinking man’s midterms narrative: Republicans lose when they lose, and they lose when they win.

Such reporting has become more interesting since the Times embraced data journalism first with Nate Silver and now with its post-Silver Upshot blog. Since the Times’s reporting is usually heavy on wishful thinking and light on facts, the paper would be at risk of its data journalists undoing the narratives the Times’s political reporters and editors work so hard to establish. Such is the case with the Upshot’s latest, “G.O.P. Is Making Progress Toward Presidency but Is Still Playing Catch-Up.”

Not only does the piece debunk the notion that there is some fixed demographic state that will hold true from now on and lock Republicans out of the popular vote, but it also makes clear that there will only be a civil war on the right if Republicans foolishly invent one. In fact, the most notable takeaway from the Upshot piece is that in the battle over whether the colossal rout the Republicans achieved last week proved the “establishment” or the “Tea Party” (a term that has probably just about outlived its usefulness) right, the answer is: both.

First, the debunking of the Democrats’ exceedingly silly argument that they lost so badly simply because of non-presidential year turnout:

The Democratic losses were not simply because of low turnout. Republicans often made significant gains among rural, white voters. Some candidates made inroads among young and Hispanic voters, as well, according to exit polls and county and precinct-level results.

Precisely. Some of the Democrats’ woes had to do with lower-than-2012 turnout and some had to do with the fact that conservatives were expanding their coalition while liberals weren’t. I imagine conservatives wouldn’t mind if Democrats persist in their emphatic denial of reality, though even President Obama–who made a point of trying to delegitimize midterm voters in a typical bout of petulant foot stomping–seems to be coming around to the absurdity of the White House’s initial spin. (Though he is still not quite approaching reality.)

The Upshot’s Nate Cohn continues:

On Tuesday, Joni Ernst, now a Republican senator-elect, won a decisive nine-point victory. She swept much of traditionally Democratic eastern Iowa, where Democrats have long fared well with rural voters.

In Colorado, Cory Gardner, now a senator-elect, also made significant gains among rural white voters. He also outperformed past Republicans in traditionally Democratic, heavily Hispanic counties.

These gains suggest that demographic trends have not doomed Republicans to minority-party status, as some political analysts predicted. Those predictions hinged in part on the assumption that Democrats could fare no worse among white voters than Mr. Obama. That assumption ignored Mr. Obama’s strengths among white voters outside the South.

It’s important to note that the trends haven’t been completely reversed, either. Republicans aren’t doomed but neither are Democrats; indeed, Democrats still have a strong presidential-year coalition. The risk they run is in ignoring the plain fact that Republicans appear to be better capable of making inroads into that Democratic coalition than political prognosticators thought. And since the Democratic electoral coalition is sustained through identity politics and not ideas, if Republicans can negate those identity-politics appeals the Democrats would be in trouble.

But the other lesson here is that the establishment and the grassroots made a superb team in this year’s midterms. The ability of Ernst in Iowa and Gardner in Colorado, among others, to win competitive races in states Obama carried twice showed that the candidate mattered, as the establishment has been emphasizing, and that conservative ideas were winners even in blue states, as the grassroots have been insisting.

Ernst, in fact, was conservative enough to cause Super-Civil Centrist Norm Ornstein to have a breakdown on social media, calling Ernst a “lunatic.” But an important element in allowing those conservative ideas to be heard was the nominations of better candidates, the GOP’s efforts in media training those candidates, and in some cases ensuring the nominations of establishment-friendly candidates who would win quietly. As Chuck Todd accidentally admitted after the election, had one conservative candidate uttered a controversial remark, the press would have forced that remark into every single race throughout the country.

This is not to say the GOP was mistake-free. Indeed, the establishment clearly erred in not intervening to encourage Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Pat Roberts of Kansas to retire–Roberts being an extremely dangerous play since his race turned out to be competitive. But it wasn’t about either the establishment or the grassroots being perfect, it was about not making the kinds of mistakes that change the narrative and toughen the terrain for other candidates around the country. That was a test they passed, and in doing so proved the attractiveness of conservatism even in places it was assumed to be unwelcome.

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Midterm Sour Grapes, Tea Party Edition

Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.

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Democrats aren’t the only ones feeling gloomy today. Despite the likelihood that the Republican Party will retake the Senate and increase its majority in the House, some Tea Party conservatives look around the country at the GOP’s roster of candidates and say they’ve been cheated. Rather than win by nominating hard-core right-wingers wherever possible, the party has, instead, put forward a more mainstream electoral cast including many that have been labeled, whether fairly or unfairly, as establishment types. That leads people like Erick Erickson to label today’s results a “hollow victory” in a Politico Magazine article. But while many Tea Partiers may share some of his frustration about the GOP establishment, they should reject his reflexive disgust and embrace this opportunity to not only act as a break on the Obama administration’s liberal agenda but to actually govern.

Let’s concede that Erickson and other Tea Partiers are not crazy to be suspicious about the Republican leadership. They remember what happened the last time the GOP had control of both houses of Congress. The reason there is a Tea Party movement is due to the fact that during the George W. Bush administration, the party was rightly perceived to have embraced a tax-and-spend mentality that helped dig the country a hole that it has not yet climbed out of. The pointless discussions about who is a RINO (Republican in name only) inevitably descend into tests of purity whose aim is to demonstrate which conservatives are holier than anyone else. Yet the question of who is a big-government Republican is a serious one that should influence the new freshman class of Senators and Representatives to avoid the mistakes made during the reign of error presided over by former Speaker Denny Hastert and House Majority Leader Tom Delay.

But Erickson’s animus seems not to be so much focused on whether the next Republican majority will avoid the temptations of big government and resume spending like drunken sailors as it is on those that sought to avoid the kind of disasters that cost the party golden opportunities to win the Senate in 2010 and 2012. Erickson is still angry with national Republican political consultants such as Karl Rove and people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who worked hard to recruit Senate candidates based on whether they could win rather than on their conservative purity. The result was that Tea Party insurgents in states like Kansas and Mississippi were defeated and establishment Republicans won.

Not all of these decisions were wise. Certainly, the GOP must look back at the effort to ensure that Pat Roberts was given the party’s Senate nomination rather than a Tea Party rebel with some mixed feelings. Roberts is the poster child for out-of-touch incumbents who richly deserve to be retired rather than given a ticket for another six years in Washington. If Roberts loses his Kansas seat today—especially if the GOP falls one seat short of a majority—Tea Partiers will never let the establishment live that one down. Conservatives also still have hard feelings over the way the party leadership went all-out to save incumbent Thad Cochran in Mississippi even though he is another senator that grew roots in D.C. and replacing him as a nominee would not have cost the party the seat.

Erickson also takes a shot at Thom Tillis in North Carolina and David Perdue in Georgia. Both are not incumbents but still represent an establishment mentality that provides voters with unattractive choices rather than a fresh and principled conservative alternative.

This critique is consistent with the theme we’ve heard from many conservatives about the pitfalls of Republicans nominating so-called moderates for president like John McCain or Mitt Romney. This thesis holds that the party alienates its base and creates millions of missing Republican voters by putting forward certain losers without the passion of true conservatives. To that indictment, Erickson adds that this is largely the fault of consultants who profit handsomely from such losses.

There is something to be said for the argument that merely nominating respectable losers does nothing to advance the conservative cause or to stop the growth of the big-government monster that is devouring the U.S. economy and stealing more of our individual freedom every year. But the idea that the only choice before the GOP is between nominating fat cat losers and principled conservative winners is, like the straw men that President Obama likes to use as his favorite rhetorical device, a false choice. What Republicans need is not so much Tea Party fervor as it is political skill.

What Hastert and the K Street caucus that profited from past Republican majorities taught us is that Republicans need to be about more than just attempts to buy votes with government pork. But in 2010 and 2012, the right also taught it that putting forward candidates who can’t win the support of a majority of voters isn’t too smart either. Without the Tea Party insisting on nominating Sharron Angle for a Nevada race, Harry Reid would have been defeated in 2010. Nor should anyone on the right forget that putting forward Christine O’Donnell rather than a respectable GOP moderate ensured that the Democrats would win a seat in Delaware that they are likely to hold for a long time. The disdain for national leaders attempting to vet Senate candidates also seems absurd given what happened in Missouri when Rep. Todd Akin (an extreme social conservative rather than a Tea Partier) not only threw away a certain defeat of Democrat Claire McCaskill but also tarnished the Republican brand around the nation with his idiotic comments about rape and pregnancy.

These lessons should be remembered even when we look at what seem like reasonable criticisms of the establishment by Erickson. While re-nominating Roberts and even Cochran may be classified as unforced errors, what he’s leaving out of the discussion is the very real possibility that loose cannons such as Milton Wolf and Chris McDaniel might have sunk the party. In particular, it can be argued that keeping McDaniel, a former radio talker with a paper trail of wild comments a mile long, out of the general election might have been the smartest thing the GOP did all year since he might have been the 2014 version of Akin.

The question of what Republicans do with their majority if they win it is something we’ll find out in 2015. But you can’t govern without winning elections and that is something the Tea Party hasn’t always mastered. Too often, some of them seem more interested in fighting and destroying their slightly less conservative party opponents than in beating Democrats and then governing. Sour grapes from Tea Partiers about “hollow victories” strikes me as being just as absurd as the excuses already put forward by Democrats about why they are losing this election. If Rove, McConnell, and Co. have stopped them from blowing up another chance for a Republican majority, that is something that even the most dedicated conservatives should be celebrating tonight.

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Democrats Are All About Power

Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

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Can you imagine a conservative or Tea Party Republican statewide candidate so determined to beat the Democrats that they would withdraw from a race in order to help an independent who might (or might not) switch to the GOP after the election? Neither can I. These days the political right in this country values ideology over mere political advantage. But not so their Democrat opponents. As this week’s news from Kansas and Alaska illustrates, one of our two major political parties is consistently playing to win and the other can’t necessarily be relied upon to do so.

In Kansas, Chad Taylor, the Democratic Senate candidate withdrew from the race. Taylor was trailing badly in the polls in a contest in which embattled Republican incumbent Pat Roberts faced his most significant competition from independent Greg Orman. This will clear the field for the former Republican turned Democrat turned independent to mount a serious challenge to Roberts who survived a tough primary fight in which his lack of a home in Kansas was a major issue.

In Alaska, something similar happened when Byron Mallott, the Democratic candidate for governor agreed to merge forces with independent Bill Walker in order to better compete against GOP incumbent Sean Parnell. The Democratic state central committee endorsed a new ticket on which Mallott will be their candidate for lieutenant governor under Walker, who dropped his membership in the Alaska Republican Party in order to facilitate this unusual marriage of convenience.

In both cases, regular liberal Democrats swallowed hard and bowed to their party’s best interests by endorsing a less ideological candidate. If that wasn’t enough, also in Alaska, incumbent Senator Mark Begich demonstrated his commitment to winning at all costs by running a television advertisement that falsely accused his GOP opponent, a former state attorney general, of responsibility for the freeing of a convict who subsequently murdered two senior citizens and raping their granddaughter. Protests from the outraged family of the victims forced Begich to take the ad off the air but his willingness to broadcast what Politico calls a “Willie Horton ad” in his quest for reelection amply illustrated a fight-to-the-death spirit that seems to be animating Democrats this year.

What’s going on?

What we’re observing in these races is the way Democrats have become a party solely devoted to power. Whereas Democrats were once even more fractious and as prone to ideological squabbles as Republicans, in recent years they have changed. The Obama era is one in which the party of Jefferson and Jackson has finally realized that the only way to enact their liberal big-government agenda is to win elections. In service to that cause they have embraced unprincipled opportunists like Charlie Crist in Florida, Orman in Kansas, and Walker in Alaska. Where liberals might have once preferred to fight centrist Democrats in a quest for purity, they understand the election of political chameleons fighting under their banner will do more to advance their cause than sticking with a principled liberal who will lose honorably.

This is in marked contrast to Republicans who have in recent years made a specialty of tearing each other apart in bitter and often pointless civil wars that have resulted in their losing Senate seats they might have won. Indeed, the whole point of the Tea Party is a reaction to the way the Republican Party seemed to lose its soul during the George W. Bush administration with GOP majorities in the House and the Senate spending like drunken sailors just like Democrats in a futile effort to win the loyalty of voters. Indeed, the ire of most Tea Partiers has always seemed to be mostly reserved for moderate Republicans—dubbed RINOs—whose defeat is considered a greater victory for true conservatism than unseating any Democrat. Purging the GOP of such heretics has been their goal and they have largely succeeded.

Contrary to the myth propagated by the liberal mainstream media, Republicans are, as a rule, no more extreme in their conservatism than the average Democrat officeholder is in their liberalism. But the Jacobin spirit demonstrated by the Tea Party—which initially represented a healthy revolt of the taxpayers against an establishment determined to ignore the wishes of the voters and feather their own nests—which has largely acted as if it is better to have a liberal win a congressional or Senate seat rather than a nominal non-conservative Republican, has done more than hurt the GOP’s electoral prospects in some cases. It has also given it the aura of a Robespierre-style junta determined to root out any ideological diversity or dissent. This fealty to principle at all costs can be more attractive in some ways than the cynicism of the Democrats. But it also seems to be rooted in an indifference to governance that ill befits any great party that seeks to rule rather than merely posture.

So while opportunistic turncoats like Crist as well as the shady maneuvers of Kansas and Alaska Democrats rightly disgust Republicans, they can also take a lesson from them. Winning isn’t the only thing in politics and dishonorable flip-flopping is a disgrace, but the only way to really stop liberal big government is to ensure that the advocates of those policies lose elections. The moral of the story is that it’s no good complaining about ObamaCare if your activists are actually doing more to elect Democrats than Republicans who might vote to repeal it.

Democrats have figured out that they are better off taking half a loaf than none at all. It remains to be seen if Republicans are mature enough to learn the same lesson before they throw away another chance to control Congress.

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McCarthy Learning from Cantor’s Mistakes?

After Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss to Dave Brat, it appeared as though we wouldn’t really understand what happened for some time. But it turned out that one of the earliest pieces on the upset was so on-target as to eventually become the conventional wisdom. Robert Tracinski’s reaction piece at the Federalist had an advantage over many others seeking to weigh in: Tracinski lives in Cantor’s district, and so had a front-row seat.

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After Eric Cantor’s surprise primary loss to Dave Brat, it appeared as though we wouldn’t really understand what happened for some time. But it turned out that one of the earliest pieces on the upset was so on-target as to eventually become the conventional wisdom. Robert Tracinski’s reaction piece at the Federalist had an advantage over many others seeking to weigh in: Tracinski lives in Cantor’s district, and so had a front-row seat.

As Tracinski explained at the time:

For almost as long as I’ve lived here, which is coming up on 20 years now, the purpose of the seventh district has been to re-elect Eric Cantor every two years. It’s a strongly Republican district that spans across a very conservative stretch of rural Central Virginia, from the Richmond suburbs to Culpeper. So what were we going to do, vote for a Democrat? No, we were going to vote for Cantor.

And Cantor knew it. Because he didn’t have to worry too much about getting re-elected every two years, his political ambition was channeled into rising through the hierarchy of the House leadership. Rise he did, all the way up to the #2 spot, and he was waiting in the wings to become Speaker of the House.

The result was that Cantor’s real constituency wasn’t the folks back home.

Cantor was replaced in that leadership slot by California Republican Kevin McCarthy, who seemed to follow the old adage about learning from the mistakes of others–though he doesn’t need much of a reminder. The Wall Street Journal reports that McCarthy is intent on staying close to his constituents. A congressman should represent his district in Washington, not represent Washington to his district. If that’s one lesson to come out of the grassroots’ insurgent campaigns against establishment candidates, the Tea Party and other conservative groups will have brought back a measure of accountability sorely needed in the nation’s capital.

Yet to be fair to McCarthy, he was aware of this before Cantor’s defeat. As the Journal notes, McCarthy was instrumental in helping the GOP gain its House majority by strategically targeting Democrats he considered vulnerable–not because they were poor candidates or beset by scandals, but because they had been in office long enough to drift from their home district:

Anyone in search of Mr. McCarthy on weekends needs to look no further than Luigi’s, one of this city’s oldest family-run businesses. As the man who orchestrated a 2010 Republican takeover of Congress by targeting Democrats who, in his estimation, were out of touch with their districts, Mr. McCarthy is keenly aware that forsaking home for power in Washington can spell defeat.

“In your fifth term, I felt you were most vulnerable,” Mr. McCarthy said, after ordering a round of Butterfinger pies for the table. “So I would target those to go after.”

McCarthy’s district is, however, in many ways a cross-section of the competing interest groups that follow the congressman to Washington and back. The Journal explains that McCarthy is under pressure from the United Farm Workers, which is based in his district, over immigration.

McCarthy also hears from the Bakersfield Tea Party, which aims to push McCarthy to the right by showing him “some tough love,” in the words of one of its leaders. And he must add “oil and agricultural industries” to the mix as well. But even if McCarthy has been no stranger around his district, he still seems to be consciously employing the lessons of Cantor’s defeat:

Mr. McCarthy is doing what he can to ensure he doesn’t suffer the fate of the man he replaces as majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor, whose Virginia primary loss last month came at the hands of a virtually unknown tea-party candidate who successfully attacked Mr. Cantor as having become too much part of the Washington establishment.

Despite facing only a write-in opponent this fall, Mr. McCarthy already has aired a campaign commercial here. “Being elected majority leader was an honor,” Mr. McCarthy said in the spot. “But the highest honor is serving our community and you.”

During a recent visit home, Mr. McCarthy served his constituents—literally.

Donning a Sequoia Sandwich Company T-shirt, Mr. McCarthy hustled through lunchtime crowds, sweating and bellowing out order numbers. The sandwich shop marked the day by offering “The McCarthy” special: cracked-pepper turkey on a ciabatta roll with cream cheese.

Some of this is cosmetic, and some of it is nearly universal to members of the House who must run for reelection every two years and, even in a safe district, at least make a show of it. But that show is reassuring: as American politics has become increasingly nationalized, the public stands to lose a great deal at the steady erosion of local governance. The Tea Party often talks about getting back to first principles, and this is a good way to do so.

The Tea Party has put up some poor candidates, but on balance it has been a net positive for the conservative movement. Cantor’s loss may have been surprising, and it also may not really change anything. But if it serves to remind members of Congress who their constituents are, it’ll have another, even if modest, benefit.

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The Idealism and Realism of the American Founders

During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

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During an engaging, wide-ranging interview with Katie Couric at the Aspen Ideas Festival, New York Times columnist David Brooks was asked this: “How do you feel about the Tea Party? The notion of compromise is a dirty word more than ever on Capitol Hill. So how do you see us getting us to a place where there can be a moderate middle? Do you think it’s possible to return to those days?” To which Brooks replied this way:

Let me quibble with one phrase in your question, which would be “moderate middle.” So I’m a moderate but I’m not in the middle. And what I mean by that, I think being moderate is seeing politics as a competition between partial truths. And like in this era we have competition between security and freedom, between achievement and equality, between mobility and cohesion. And both sides have a piece of the truth. And often you want to be radical on both ends and try to balance. So it’s all about balance. So you can really value things that are on each end as long as you try to balance these opposing things and as long as you understand that politics is a messy, slow … boring through hard boards–it’s just messy and slow and you take one step at a time.

Brooks went on to say this:

My problem with the Tea Party is partly what they believe, but partly it’s just their [methods]–they’re anti-political. I believe in politics, that you pass a piece of legislation and you get half a loaf and you make a slow step and you make a compromise and you try to go a little forward every day. Politics is not, it’s not show business. It’s just messy compromises because you’re always caught in contradictions and filled with paradoxes. And my problem with the Tea Party is they don’t like politics. They want it to be pure, and they often punish people who they call RINOs–who are Republican in Name Only–because they’re not pure. But I think impurity is what leaders do. They take impurity upon themselves. They take the sins of the situation on themselves. They take the complexity of the situation on themselves and they try to muddle through. And so I think people who are unwilling to muddle through are not being political; they’re being self-indulgent. And so I have a problem with that style of politics.

I would add some elaborations to what David says, ones I think he might agree with, such as: No one in politics sees the truth in full, but some people are within much closer striking distance than others. And the Tea Party movement has produced some of the most impressive politicians now on the right, including Marco Rubio (who defeated Charlie Crist in their primary) and Mike Lee (who defeated Bob Bennett in their primary).

With that said, Brooks is zeroing in on something quite important, which is that politics is an inherently messy business. Moreover, the American founders–who developed the concepts of checks and balances, separation of powers, and all the rest–wanted politics to be messy. That is, our constitutional order requires give and take, adaptation and collaboration, the balancing of competing interests, and compromise itself. As Jonathan Rauch has written in National Affairs, “In our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good: an indispensable source of political discipline, competition, and stability — which are all conservative values.”

Too often these days, zealous people who are in a hurry don’t appreciate that the process and methods of politics–the “messy,” muddling through side of politics–is a moral achievement of sorts. But this, too, is only part of the story.

The other part of the story is that justice is often advanced by people who are seized with a moral vision. They don’t much care about the prosaic side of governing; they simply want society to be better, more decent, and more respectful of human dignity. So yes, it’s important not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. But it’s also the case that politics requires us to strive for certain (unattainable) ideals.

There’s a distinction, then, between motivating ideals and the methods and processes of politics. Think of Martin Luther King’s dream and Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. Or think of Lincoln, who was both the greatest exponent of principles of the Declaration of Independence in American history and a supremely great politician.

What happens all too often in our politics is that people who are drawn to one tend to look with disdain on those who are drawn to the other. What we need, I think, is greater recognition that both are necessary, that each one alone is insufficient. Visionaries have to find a way to give their vision concrete expression, which requires deal-making, compromise, and accepting something less than the ideal. Legislators need to govern with some commitment to philosophical and moral ideals; otherwise, they’re just passing laws and cutting deals for their own sake.

What David Brooks is saying, I think–and where I agree with him–is that some recalibration needs to occur in some quarters on the right, away from those seeking purification and excommunication (RINO-hunters) and toward a fuller, more authentic conservatism. Call it the conservatism of the founders.

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Will GOP Regret Torching Miss. Tea Party?

The conventional wisdom about Senator Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff yesterday assures the GOP of retaining the seat in November. But the bitterness engendered by the establishment candidate’s using large numbers of liberal Democrat voters to win a narrow triumph may do just the opposite.

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The conventional wisdom about Senator Thad Cochran’s victory in the Mississippi Republican primary runoff yesterday assures the GOP of retaining the seat in November. But the bitterness engendered by the establishment candidate’s using large numbers of liberal Democrat voters to win a narrow triumph may do just the opposite.

Some in the party establishment feared a win for Tea Party insurgent Chris McDaniel would have sent the media rummaging through the archive of his radio shows finding absurd statements that would have alienated moderate voters and allowed a relatively conservative Democrat to make a race of it. But with the six-term incumbent safely nominated, the assumption is that the November election will be more or less a formality that will allow Republicans to concentrate on other states where they have a chance to pick up seats.

Cochran’s ability to turn out black Democrats in huge numbers to offset his unpopularity among members of his own party in an open primary state could also be interpreted as a triumph for GOP outreach. For a party that desperately needs more minority support, some may argue that Cochran’s tactic of paying black political organizers to persuade hard-core Democrats to vote in a Republican primary is a sign that African-Americans can be enticed to support a GOP candidate under some circumstances.

While that is a rather dubious assumption, the bottom line about the Mississippi primary is that the Tea Party got out-organized, out-spent and outflanked by an incumbent. Cochran was able to use support from the party establishment, business, and local constituencies who were influenced by the senator’s ability to manipulate the federal budget. That bought him a win in a primary that should have been dominated by the highly motivated conservative activists who wanted to retire him.

But the general satisfaction among establishment Republicans today needs to be tempered by the knowledge that what Cochran did in Mississippi may hurt the party in ways they may not quite understand.

The first problem is that by winning a GOP primary on the strength of black Democrat support, Cochran may have pushed his party opponents over the edge to the point where they may actively consider a suicidal effort to sabotage his chances in November. For all the talk of a McDaniel win giving the Democrats a small, if unlikely, chance of winning the seat, by denying him the nomination in a manner that left his supporters feeling more cheated than beaten, the party leadership may have actually increased their problems rather than eliminating them. A write-in campaign for McDaniel in the general election has no chance of winning him the seat. But, if he was able to mobilize the same Tea Party activists who brought him to the brink of a victory in the first round of voting, he could do serious damage to Cochran.

Why might Tea Partiers act in such a self-destructive manner?

Simply put, the worst problem for Republicans is not the prospect of nominating outlier candidates who will lose winnable seats in the general election. That has happened and it has cost the party dearly to be saddled with the likes of Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and Todd Akin. But an even greater peril is the possibility that Tea Party activists will stop fighting to take control of the GOP and abandon it altogether as being merely a slightly different version of the same Democrat tax and spending machine they are pledged to defeat. Whatever promises Cochran made or didn’t make to persuade black power brokers to back him yesterday, his win exemplifies everything that Tea Partiers despise about members of the permanent governing class in both parties.

The short-term problems that a McDaniel revenge campaign might have this year might be mitigated by the fact that it is simply impossible for any Republican candidate—whether it was Cochran or McDaniel—to lose in this deep-red state. But as much as Republicans are right to worry about their party losing touch with the concerns of independents and minorities whose votes have tipped the last two presidential elections to Barack Obama, a GOP that loses its most motivated and hard-working voters is doomed.

A party establishment that doesn’t just outwork the Tea Party but also seeks to negate the will of the majority of Republican voters is one that is in danger of alienating the base. Whether or not Chris McDaniel seeks to play the spoiler in November, that’s the kind of thing that loses general elections as easily as extreme candidates.

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If Cochran Loses, It Isn’t a Revolution

Today’s Mississippi Republican senatorial primary is being billed as a potential revolution for Republicans in the state and the nation. The smackdown between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel is seen in many quarters as nothing less than a clash of political civilizations as the establishment attempts to hold back the rising tide of Tea Party insurgents.

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Today’s Mississippi Republican senatorial primary is being billed as a potential revolution for Republicans in the state and the nation. The smackdown between six-term incumbent Thad Cochran and challenger Chris McDaniel is seen in many quarters as nothing less than a clash of political civilizations as the establishment attempts to hold back the rising tide of Tea Party insurgents.

If you watch some of the ads being aired in the state as well as listen to the comments from many in the state’s party establishment, it’s easy to see why so many people are viewing it in this manner. The race turned ugly months ago and has gotten progressively nastier after McDaniel fell a hair short of a clear majority in the initial primary forcing today’s runoff with Cochran. Some of the Republican primaries that took place earlier in the year were seen as indicating that the Tea Party had run its course and that moderates were still in control of the GOP. But the defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in his Virginia primary earlier this month and the prospect of McDaniel winning today has the party establishment back in panic mode talking about revolutions and worrying that a few more such defeats for their preferred candidates will doom the Republicans.

The talk about the death of the Tea Party was not so much premature as it was misleading since virtually all Republicans now subscribe—or at least pay lip service—to the cause of limited government and scaling back the nation’s addiction to taxes and spending. But as in the Cantor race, where a national figure found himself out of touch with his party’s grass roots, what’s going in Mississippi isn’t so much a revolution as it is the oldest story in politics. No one, not even longtime incumbents who act like university professors with tenure, is assured of victory when faced with a spirited challenger who is a fresh face.

This is a basic political truth that a lot of the so-called Republican establishment, especially in Mississippi, seem to have forgotten. Just because Thad Cochran has been in the Senate for 42 years doing more or less what he thought his constituents wanted him to do doesn’t mean that he hasn’t passed his political expiration date. Voters get tired of the same old thing in the same old package and sometimes prefer the younger, more dynamic voice. They also sometimes change their minds about what’s really important.

Cochrane has spent his career helping his state use the federal government as an ATM as Mississippi gets far more money from Washington than it pays into the system. But even in a state that has clearly benefitted from Congress’ out-of-control spending habits it is possible for voters to think this isn’t the way to run a railroad. Cochran still doesn’t seem to understand that bringing home the bacon isn’t a guarantee of reelection and even speaks at times as if he thinks its unfair that some in his party hold his role in the expansion of government power against him.

In short, what may be happening in Mississippi isn’t so much the Deep South version of the storming of the Bastille as it is the very American ritual of voters throwing out a politician who has lost touched with his base. Doing so doesn’t so much indicate that Republicans are getting extreme as it does that Cochran, as opposed to other longtime incumbents—like Wyoming’s Mike Enzi—who have maintained their grasp of local political realities, stayed too long in the fray. Like all last hurrahs, the leave taking may be painful for all involved but the end of the story is inevitable. McDaniel’s victory won’t mean his party has gone over the edge. Nor will it, despite Democratic hopes, necessarily put this ultra-red state in play this fall. But it will show that the establishment should have nudged Cochran out rather than going down fighting with him.

That said, there is one caveat to be mentioned in any discussion of this race and whether a McDaniel victory will hurt his party. Cochran has cynically attempted to get black Democrats to cross party lines and vote for him today. I doubt he will have much success in doing so, but the reports about the McDaniel camp setting up poll watchers to prevent voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary from taking part in the GOP runoff is potential political dynamite. If any of McDaniel’s Tea Party supporters are seen to be harassing blacks trying to vote today in Mississippi of all places, the Republican Party will never live it down. If McDaniel has any brains, he will tell his people to stand down and to avoid interfering with anyone trying to vote. If he doesn’t, the optics will be so bad that it will not only affect that state’s politics but that of the entire country.

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Phony Scandal? Courts Open Window on the IRS’s Political Litmus Tests

Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

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Interest in the Internal Revenue Service’s outrageous practice of subjecting politically conservative groups to discriminatory treatment has died down a bit since the revelations about this scandal first hit the news a year ago. But a court decision that was handed down earlier this week about a similar instance of potential government misconduct may shed more light on the way the Tea Party and other right-wing organizations were given the business by Lois Lerner and the rest of what appears to be a highly politicized bureaucracy at the heart of our tax collection system.

On Tuesday, Federal Judge Ketanje Brown Jackson issued the first substantive ruling in any suit that challenged the IRS’s pose of political neutrality under the Obama administration. The case concerns Z Street, a Philadelphia area-based pro-Israel organization that filed for tax-exempt status in December 2009 because of its role in educating the public about Israel and the Middle East conflict. The group’s founder Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press this week about what followed:

On July 19, 2010, when counsel for Z STREET spoke with the IRS agent to whom the organization’s application had been assigned, that agent said that a determination on Z STREET’s application may be further delayed because the IRS gave “special scrutiny” to organizations connected to Israel and especially to those whose views “contradict those of the administration’s.”

Z Street subsequently sued the government and rightly argued that its constitutional rights had been violated because of the “viewpoint discrimination” that the IRS agent had openly displayed. Now after years of delays, Judge Jackson has ruled that by asserting that Z Street had no right to sue, the government had tried to “transform a lawsuit that clearly challenges the constitutionality of the process … into a dispute over tax liability.” She similarly dismissed the government’s claims of sovereign immunity.

What has this got to do with the Tea Party and its complaints? Plenty.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial page noted yesterday:

This ruling will force the IRS to open its books on the procedures it used and decisions it made reviewing Z Street’s tax-exempt application, procedures it has tried to keep shrouded. As the case proceeds, Z Street’s attorneys can seek depositions from many who have been part of the larger attempt to sit on similar applications by other conservative groups.

In other words, this case may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the IRS’s politically prejudicial policies. If an IRS agent can reject or stall a pro-Israel group’s application on the grounds that “these cases are being sent to a special unit in the D.C. office to determine whether the organization’s activities contradict the Administration’s public policies,” then no group, no matter what its political orientation or cause is safe from being subjected to a political litmus test designed by any administration of either political party.

Z Street’s Marcus deserves praise for having the guts to persist in her challenge to the government for years even though the media had little interest in publicizing what appeared to be an outrageous example of how the IRS had become politicized under the Obama presidency. Last year Marcus learned she wasn’t alone when the news about the Tea Party broke. Now, as her legal process unfolds, Americans may get a better idea about how broken the system has become.

Using the IRS to punish political foes is blatantly illegal. If, as we suspect, the Z Street case reveals the sort of internal email traffic that will reveal how widespread this practice has become in the last five years, perhaps even a liberal mainstream press that still thinks the problems at the IRS are a “phony scandal” will start to pay attention.

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Dems Won’t Be Saved Again by the Tea Party

Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.

The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.

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Yesterday’s primary results in Kentucky, Georgia, Oregon, and Idaho confirmed what has already become an obvious trend this year. Tea Party-backed candidates would not sweep to victory in Republican primary fights across the nation as they largely did in 2010 and 2012. That was good news for the so-called GOP establishment as well as for incumbents like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who crushed his Tea Party challenger in a Kentucky landslide. But it is even worse news for President Obama and the Democrats. Republicans blew golden opportunities to take winnable Senate seats from vulnerable Democratic incumbents in both the last two federal elections.

The results in Kentucky as well as in Oregon where the GOP nominated its strongest possible candidate in Dr. Monica Wehby and even in Georgia, where two mainstream candidates will face off in runoff, doesn’t mean that the Republicans are a lock to get to 51 Senate seats. McConnell is in for the fight of his life with Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, Wehby faces a tough incumbent in Jeff Merkley, and whoever wins the GOP nod in Georgia will not have an easy time beating Democrat Michelle Nunn. But if Harry Reid does hang on as majority leader it won’t be because the GOP was saddled with the kind of outlier candidates like the one that was largely responsible for reelecting the Nevada senator.

It bears repeating that those in the media who are treating this as an ideological shift in which moderates have triumphed over conservatives are mistaken. Though individual groups that claimed the Tea Party banner have attempted to transform a broad grassroots movement into something with a specific address and card-carrying members (while liberals have falsely imagined it to be the function of a few large conservative donors like the Koch brothers pulling the puppet strings of political operatives), the Tea Party movement was always something far more amorphous. It began as an inchoate push across the board from conservatives who were angry about the betrayal of what they felt were the party’s principles from big government Republicans in Congress as well as about the Obama administration’s billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare.

In its first bloom in 2010 and to a lesser degree in 2012 that rise led to the nomination of people like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who had no business getting major party nods. That happened because of the perception that their opponents were somehow part of the permanent governing class that had no compunction about increasing the debt in order to keep funding a government with no limits. But what has happened in recent years is that virtually the entire Republican Party has embraced Tea Party ideology when it comes to the big issues of taxing and spending. While the liberal mainstream media has always labeled Tea Partiers as being a bunch of wild-eyed extremists who were liable to be racists as well as at war with the federal government, the reality is that most of the voters and candidates who identify with the term are simply conservatives who are tired of business as usual Republicans.

What happened on Tuesday is not a situation where mainstream Republicans bested Tea Partiers and beat them on the issues. Rather, it was that voters were faced with candidates that largely shared the same views but understandably preferred more electable Republicans to those who were unlikely to prevail in November.

Indeed, this ideological shift is noticeable even among the Democrats who are being nominated to oppose these conservatives. Candidates like Grimes and Nunn are doing everything to distance themselves from President Obama and seeking to appeal to mainstream voters. While Democrats in blue states are veering to the left, those in the rest of the country understand that they must come across as being comfortable with the basic conservatism of most Americans. That’s good politics, and if the GOP lets them get away with obscuring their dedication to failed liberal policies, the Democrats will prevail.

But after years of the media echo chamber flaying the Republicans for being in thrall to extremists, GOP primary voters have taken that issue off the table. Without it, Democrats will be hard-pressed to hold the Senate.

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The Tea Party Comes Into Its Own

The main takeaway from recent GOP primaries, which saw the victories of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, was a continuation of a lesson conservatives have been learning the past few election cycles: the candidate matters. In the past, conservatives have often learned this by losing–see Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, etc. Now they seem to be proving it by winning.

Slate’s John Dickerson is always worth reading, and he has another typically thoughtful piece today, asking “Why Is the GOP’s Civil War So Civil?” He notes, correctly, that the returns in North Carolina and Nebraska mean “the grassroots conservatives of the Tea Party and elites of the GOP establishment can both claim victories.” But I think it’s actually part of a larger trend that includes not just recent nominees but also the successful politicians the Tea Party has already elevated. Dickerson writes:

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The main takeaway from recent GOP primaries, which saw the victories of Nebraska’s Ben Sasse and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, was a continuation of a lesson conservatives have been learning the past few election cycles: the candidate matters. In the past, conservatives have often learned this by losing–see Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, etc. Now they seem to be proving it by winning.

Slate’s John Dickerson is always worth reading, and he has another typically thoughtful piece today, asking “Why Is the GOP’s Civil War So Civil?” He notes, correctly, that the returns in North Carolina and Nebraska mean “the grassroots conservatives of the Tea Party and elites of the GOP establishment can both claim victories.” But I think it’s actually part of a larger trend that includes not just recent nominees but also the successful politicians the Tea Party has already elevated. Dickerson writes:

Nebraska is a safe Republican state. Perhaps the forces of the establishment would have jumped in more heavily if the march to the majority in the Senate were threatened. But that’s not a certainty. Sasse is no Christine O’Donnell or Richard Mourdock, two of the candidates often cited as being substandard. Sasse has political skill, an Ivy League education, and credentials as a Bush administration veteran. He will win the general election in the heavily red state and come to Washington as a Rand Paul or Ron Johnson type of senator—what used to be known as simply a good movement conservative.

The reference to Paul and Johnson (and an earlier one to Marco Rubio) provides a good opportunity to check in with the senators who were part of earlier successful Tea Party grassroots efforts. Johnson is far from a firebrand, and he has settled into the Senate nicely without expressing any interest (at least yet) in using it as a platform for a near-term presidential run. But even the ones considering a run for the presidency have–perhaps for that reason–paid a lot of attention to their tone lately as well.

Rubio’s an obvious one, having pushed for comprehensive immigration reform: “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on healthcare if they think you want to deport their grandmother,” Rubio said after the 2012 election.

More recently, Paul–nobody’s idea of a RINO–did some tapdancing after trying to thread the needle on voter ID. “Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter ID thing,” Paul told the New York Times last week. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” After a bit of an uproar on the right, Paul explained himself to Sean Hannity (via Hot Air’s Allahpundit):

Like I say, I think both sides have made mistakes in…this issue. But it’s mainly in presentation and perception, not in reality. In the sense that, if Republicans are going to go around the country and this becomes a central theme and issue, you have to realize, rightly or wrongly, it is being perceived by some — and this is the point I was making and I think it’s still a valid point, that I’m trying to go out and say to African Americans ‘I want your vote and the Republican Party wants your vote’. If they perceive, rightly or wrongly, that showing their ID is an attempt to get them not to vote because they perceive it in the lineage of a time when it truly did happen through poll taxes and questioning to try and prevent people, if they perceive it that way, we have to be aware that the perception is out there and be careful about not so overdoing something that we further alienate a block of people we need to attract.

After posting that quote, Allahpundit remarked: “That’s basically the same rationale amnesty fans have used to justify comprehensive immigration reform.”

Perhaps, and it’s interesting to see Paul join Rubio in the group of Tea Party rising stars worrying aloud about perception as much as policy. But I think it’s more analogous to the disastrous town hall meetings congressional Republicans called to rally the base against the comprehensive immigration reform favored by then-President Bush (and John McCain). There are legitimate concerns about seeming to incentivize illegal immigration, but those town halls were an angry and, in some cases, offensive escalation of the party’s rhetoric toward immigrants.

In addition to Paul and Rubio, there’s Mike Lee’s thoughtful call for a renewed effort to fight poverty, and–though he’s in a slightly different category than the Tea Party senators–Scott Walker’s explanation of his governing philosophy in an interview with the Washington Examiner: “It’s a phrase I use often: Austerity is not the answer, reform is.”

The civility of the GOP’s “civil war” is part of a broader trend of the party’s conservatives adjusting to the fact they’re often addressing a national audience. That’s especially true for those planning a run for the presidency. Contrary to the left’s hopefully declarations that it has run its course, a Tea Party that vets its candidates and embraces governing is a political force that’s just warming up.

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Is Rubio the Establishment’s Best Bet?

Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.

Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.

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Yesterday Senator Marco Rubio made it clear on ABC’s This Week that he is seriously considering running for president in 2016. That Rubio’s been thinking about the presidency isn’t a secret. After a brutal 2013 in which his presidential prospects took a precipitous decline, the chaotic nature of the GOP race and the increasing importance of foreign policy has brought him back into the limelight. But if his chances are no better—and no worse—than just about any of the other prospective 2016 candidates, what’s really fascinating about the confident manner with which he’s promoting his candidacy is that his path to the nomination runs primarily through a Republican establishment that he once challenged.

Though he started out as a Tea Party challenger to the establishment’s choice for a Florida Senate seat, Rubio’s mainstream views on foreign policy, embrace of immigration reform, as well as his tough opposition to the Obama administration on host of other domestic issues have transformed him from an outsider to one of the people who may be hoping to fill the insider slot in the 2016 primaries. With Chris Christie heavily damaged by Bridgegate, Jeb Bush still big a question mark, and other possibilities such as Governors Scott Walker and Mike Pence not certain to run, if you’re going to handicap the race this far out, Rubio has to be considered as having a reasonable chance of being the Republican who will emerge from the early primaries as the establishment’s best hope of stopping Rand Paul. Seen in that light, Rubio’s announcement of readiness is a smart move that could set in motion a train of events that will see him inheriting the mantle of the party’s hopes for 2016.

In the last 18 months, Rubio has demonstrated just how perilous it can be to be anointed as a future president. In the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election Rubio was dubbed “The Republican Savior” by TIME magazine because of his youth, his Hispanic identity, and the fact that he represented a fresh face in a party that was desperately in need of a makeover. With impeccable conservative credentials on the issues and close ties to the Tea Party movement that he had championed in Florida against the quintessential GOP moderate Charlie Crist, Rubio seemed to be a computer model of what Republicans needed.

But after beginning 2013 as a punch line after his comic dive for a water bottle during his official response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, his stock quickly went downhill. The rise of Paul and Cruz illustrated that he had been eclipsed among Tea Partiers. The increasing willingness of many on the right to embrace Paul’s brand of isolationism also seemed to show that Rubio’s positions in favor of traditional GOP beliefs in a strong defense and engagement with the world against Islamist terror might no longer be popular on the right.

However, the biggest problem was Rubio’s decision to join a bipartisan coalition to solve the immigration mess. Rubio’s presence in the group forced it to accept a tough border enforcement element, but his acceptance of a path to citizenship provoked outrage on the right where anything other than support for deportation for illegals is viewed as heresy. Rubio’s immigration gambit was meant to demonstrate his leadership capabilities as well as his ability to compromise. And he was, and still is, absolutely right to assert that the real “amnesty” is what is going on now as 12 million illegals who are not going to be deported remain here but in a legal limbo. But it doomed any hope that Tea Partiers would back his candidacy and there are many on the right who will never back him because of it.

However, the failure of that bill has, perversely, helped Rubio come back in 2014. With immigration off the table for the near and perhaps even foreseeable future, the senator doesn’t have to keep arguing about an issue that many conservatives won’t budge on. With the crises in Ukraine and the collapse of the Middle East peace process as well as the ongoing debate about Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly Rubio’s tough foreign-policy stance makes him look a lot more marketable. There is a clear opening for a traditional Republican foreign-policy candidate to oppose Paul’s isolationism and marginal would-be contenders like Peter King and John Bolton won’t fill it.

The one big obstacle to Rubio’s hopes is Jeb Bush. If the son and brother of former presidents does run, he will likely snatch up all the establishment support Rubio needs, not to mention most of the senator’s own Florida backers. But if Bush doesn’t run, it’s easy to plot a scenario in which Rubio’s main competition for mainstream Republicans would be a severely compromised Christie and other less prominent Republicans who would be starting behind him in terms of fundraising. At that point, Rubio’s obvious strengths—youth, appeal to Hispanic voters, strong foreign-policy voice, fiscally conservative domestic policies, and willingness to play to the right on climate change—come back into play.

It remains to be seen whether much of the right will ever forgive him for a correct, if doomed, immigration proposal. But a year and a half before the primary fight really begins, you’d have to give him a fighting chance to be the man that establishment Republicans will look to if they want to stop a possible Rand Paul juggernaut in the spring of 2016.

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Did North Carolina Finish the Tea Party?

This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

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This morning on MSNBC’s politics show The Daily Rundown, host Chuck Todd described the North Carolina U.S. Senate election as his “desert island” race for 2014. In doing so, Todd was speaking for many political junkies who view it as a bellwether contest that will tell us more about what the midterm elections mean than any other this year. Which is why Thom Tillis’s victory in the Republican primary yesterday is very good news for his party. Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, defeated Greg Brannon, a libertarian physician and Tea Party favorite who was the beneficiary of a last-minute campaign stop by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. But by getting more than 45 percent of the vote in a three-way race, Tillis avoided being dragged into a runoff with Brannon that would have helped Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Brannon’s flirtation with 9/11 truthers and other positions would have made him another Todd Akin, the Missouri GOP Senatorial candidate whose gaffes reelected Claire McCaskill and hurt Republicans around the country in 2012. That’s why Hagan spent campaign funds on ads seeking to portray Tillis as insufficiently conservative in the hopes that a Tea Party surge might provide her with an easy opponent. But this primary should scare Democrats not so much because Tillis, who is in a dead heat with Hagan in the polls, is a certain winner, but because it could be a harbinger of a national trend in which liberals can’t count on right-wing activists being able to sabotage the conservative cause. The North Carolina results leave us asking not just whether, as the liberal press keeps insisting, the Tea Party is dead but if Republicans have learned their lesson from 2010 and 2012 when Tea Party outliers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell helped snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for the party. North Carolina may be a bellwether of GOP sanity but with Senate primaries in several states yet to come, the answer to that query has yet to be answered.

The first conclusion to be drawn from North Carolina is an obvious one, but still needs to be restated. Good candidates beat bad candidates while indifferent ones are always vulnerable to upset. In 2010 and 2012 those mainstream Republican candidates that got beaten by Tea Party challengers were either lackluster campaigners like Delaware’s Mike Castle or arrogant out-of-touch incumbents like Indiana’s Richard Lugar. Tea Party candidates also win when they are simply better than their opponents, as was the case with Ted Cruz in Texas. Tillis may not be the North Carolina GOP’s savior, but the veteran state house politician was not going to be outworked by the likes of Brannon, even if he had Rand Paul on his side. 

The second is that the obits about the Tea Party are premature. What many journalists fail to remember is that what happened in 2010 was a sea change in the Republican Party that caused virtually everyone in the party to join with more conservative or libertarian elements to oppose the stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. The differences between the so-called establishment that rejoiced at Tillis’s victory and the Tea Party, which is supposedly mourning it, are for the most part tactical rather than ideological. The candidates that mainstream national GOP fundraisers like Karl Rove are backing in primaries are all conservatives, not moderates. What unites them is that they are savvy enough to be able to appeal to independents and conservative Democrats rather than only preaching to the right-wing choir. And where Republicans produce a candidate like Tillis who agrees with the Tea Party on most issues but also is smart enough not to say things that will hurt him in November, they can win primaries as well as have a shot in a general election.

The point is, the Tea Party’s influence is not so much in its ability to generate candidates whose sole purpose is to knock off established Republicans but in influencing the party to remain true to its principles on taxing and spending. After all, few Republicans disagreed about the need to stop ObamaCare prior to last fall’s government shutdown; the disagreement was over whether it was a wise tactic.

Nevertheless, primaries in Georgia, Iowa, and Kentucky will give Republicans other chances to decide whether their goal is ideological purity or a conservative majority in the Senate in January. If mainstream candidates win in these states we will be told the Tea Party is dead. That will be wrong. What will have died if North Carolina is a bellwether is a strain of politics that is bent on tearing the GOP apart. What will survive is a conservative message that has been largely shaped by the Tea Party that has a good chance of sweeping the country this fall, as it did in 2010.

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Palin’s New Style of Political Influence

In today’s Washington Post, the always-insightful Robert Costa reports on Sarah Palin’s latest foray into electoral politics. In Iowa to observe a Palin campaign appearance on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst, Costa was surprised to note that Palin, who is still widely considered to be a rock star of the political right, spoke to a half-empty ballroom with only a few dozen hanging around afterward hoping to shake the hand of the former Alaska governor. That contrast between this event and the pandemonium that greeted Palin wherever she went in 2010 and 2011 led Costa and NBC’s Kasie Hunt to ponder just how much her stock had fallen since her heyday as the No. 1 attraction for the Tea Party crowd.

Some of this analysis is spot on. There’s no question that Palin has been superseded in the eyes of many on the right by the class of conservative notables like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul that was produced by the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Even though Palin can claim some credit for the victories of figures such as Cruz, when pollsters quiz Republicans about potential presidential candidates for 2016, Palin is usually not even mentioned. Though her supporters will point to the rain in Iowa as the reason for the low turnout, the fact is she is no longer as much of a draw as she once was. But in noting, as Costa did, the fact that she “soldiers on as a diminished figure in the Republican Party,” we should, however, not assume that this means she is bereft of influence or supporters. In accounting for this change in status, we must understand that what has happened is not so much a case of a former first-tier political personality declining to secondary status but that she has morphed into something entirely different than a conventional office-seeking politician. She is now a celebrity brand that, while it will never be as significant as any of the actual contenders for leadership of the Republican Party and the nation, will nonetheless remain in place for the foreseeable future as both a scourge and a source of inspiration for the right wing of the GOP.

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In today’s Washington Post, the always-insightful Robert Costa reports on Sarah Palin’s latest foray into electoral politics. In Iowa to observe a Palin campaign appearance on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst, Costa was surprised to note that Palin, who is still widely considered to be a rock star of the political right, spoke to a half-empty ballroom with only a few dozen hanging around afterward hoping to shake the hand of the former Alaska governor. That contrast between this event and the pandemonium that greeted Palin wherever she went in 2010 and 2011 led Costa and NBC’s Kasie Hunt to ponder just how much her stock had fallen since her heyday as the No. 1 attraction for the Tea Party crowd.

Some of this analysis is spot on. There’s no question that Palin has been superseded in the eyes of many on the right by the class of conservative notables like Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul that was produced by the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Even though Palin can claim some credit for the victories of figures such as Cruz, when pollsters quiz Republicans about potential presidential candidates for 2016, Palin is usually not even mentioned. Though her supporters will point to the rain in Iowa as the reason for the low turnout, the fact is she is no longer as much of a draw as she once was. But in noting, as Costa did, the fact that she “soldiers on as a diminished figure in the Republican Party,” we should, however, not assume that this means she is bereft of influence or supporters. In accounting for this change in status, we must understand that what has happened is not so much a case of a former first-tier political personality declining to secondary status but that she has morphed into something entirely different than a conventional office-seeking politician. She is now a celebrity brand that, while it will never be as significant as any of the actual contenders for leadership of the Republican Party and the nation, will nonetheless remain in place for the foreseeable future as both a scourge and a source of inspiration for the right wing of the GOP.

As Palin’s handlers and apologists are at pains to point out, she is right now far more interested in the production of her latest cable television effort than in beating the bushes on behalf of Republican candidates. By withdrawing first from her office as governor and then from what many once thought was an inevitable presidential run, Palin’s stature as a political star has, as a matter of course, declined. If the buzz and the accompanying throngs that greeted her every appearance in early 2011 made her appear to be a major force in American politics, the smaller crowds and attention now may convince some to write her off completely. But though I consider her influence on both the party and our public discourse to be not always productive or particularly insightful, her current position in our political life should not be judged solely by the standards of presidential hopefuls.

By downsizing her political ambitions and her reach, Palin has in a very real sense enhanced her ability to swoop into selected primary battles and have an outsized impact on races. Her intervention on behalf of the tough-talking Ernst, which appears to have been solely the product of that Senate candidate’s ad touting her experience castrating pigs, may turn out to be as decisive as her support for Cruz and Nebraska’s Deb Fischer in 2012, despite the talk about turnout for her appearance.

That doesn’t make her a Senate or congressional kingmaker in the guise of a Karl Rove, whose fundraising operations dwarf Palin’s now sporadic entries into primary battles. But she has managed to create a political space for herself in which expectations about her own ambitions are no longer the point. Her fan base remains numerous and utterly fanatic as anyone who dares to point out her manifest shortcomings as a political thinker and candidate knows all too well. If it is, as she knows all too well, nowhere near large enough to justify a try for national office that would result in a humiliating failure, it is sufficient to maintain her as a political player to be reckoned with on the right. If she has been eclipsed by the deep class of 2016 GOP contenders, it must also be understood that she is likely to remain a desirable backer for conservative primary candidates for the foreseeable future long after the current crop of Republican stars has been largely forgotten.

Palin is, at times, an infuriating and bitter reminder of the worst partisan excesses of the last few election cycles on the part of both parties. As such, she has no chance of ever gratifying the desire of her fan base to see her elected president and that is a good thing. But those who would like to see her go away completely are doomed to disappointment. By cleverly accepting a certain degree of detachment as well as diminishment, Sarah Palin has ensured that she will be around for a long time to come.

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SCOTUS Roulette: Why Winning Matters

In recent years discourse between various wings of the Republican Party has descended into a fight between people who largely view each other as stereotypes rather than allies. Given the stakes involved, the antagonism between Tea Party activists on the one hand and the so-called establishment on the other is understandable and disagreements about tactics are inevitable. These disputes are rooted in part in philosophical differences that are driven in no small measure by the despair that some on the right feel about the future of the nation that seems to mandate that the normal give and take of politics should be superseded by an apocalyptic crusade in which all but true believers must be wiped out. When establishment types attempt to answer such demands with pragmatic sermons about the need to temper absolutism by remembering that the prime objective is to win general elections rather than to conduct ideological purity tests, they are dismissed as temporizing trimmers.

But yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Michigan affirmative action case should act as a reminder to even the most hard-core conservatives that not winning elections could have far more catastrophic consequences for the nation than the indignity of making common cause with the GOP establishment. While conservatives were somewhat satisfied with the failure of yet another liberal attempt to defend racial quotas, the refusal of three of the conservative majority on the court to address the core issue points out just how close liberals are to remaking America should they be able to appoint another two or three justices over the course of the next decade. Conservative commentators were united in their contempt for what several called the “Orwellian” reasoning of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the case that was lionized in both a New York Times news article and an editorial on the case. But unless Republicans nominate someone in 2016 that can beat Hillary Clinton, Sotomayor may firmly be in the majority by the time the former first lady finishes her second term 11 years from now.

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In recent years discourse between various wings of the Republican Party has descended into a fight between people who largely view each other as stereotypes rather than allies. Given the stakes involved, the antagonism between Tea Party activists on the one hand and the so-called establishment on the other is understandable and disagreements about tactics are inevitable. These disputes are rooted in part in philosophical differences that are driven in no small measure by the despair that some on the right feel about the future of the nation that seems to mandate that the normal give and take of politics should be superseded by an apocalyptic crusade in which all but true believers must be wiped out. When establishment types attempt to answer such demands with pragmatic sermons about the need to temper absolutism by remembering that the prime objective is to win general elections rather than to conduct ideological purity tests, they are dismissed as temporizing trimmers.

But yesterday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Michigan affirmative action case should act as a reminder to even the most hard-core conservatives that not winning elections could have far more catastrophic consequences for the nation than the indignity of making common cause with the GOP establishment. While conservatives were somewhat satisfied with the failure of yet another liberal attempt to defend racial quotas, the refusal of three of the conservative majority on the court to address the core issue points out just how close liberals are to remaking America should they be able to appoint another two or three justices over the course of the next decade. Conservative commentators were united in their contempt for what several called the “Orwellian” reasoning of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent in the case that was lionized in both a New York Times news article and an editorial on the case. But unless Republicans nominate someone in 2016 that can beat Hillary Clinton, Sotomayor may firmly be in the majority by the time the former first lady finishes her second term 11 years from now.

As both our Peter Wehner wrote here and John Podhoretz also noted in the New York Post today, the result of yesterday’s decision was largely positive. The court upheld the right of Michigan’s voters to ban the use of so-called affirmative action in admissions in public universities by a 6-2 vote with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself from the case. Both Peter and John rightly lauded the concurring opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia (joined by Justice Clarence Thomas) that would have ruled all racial quotas unconstitutional. By pointing out that the plurality opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy (and joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito) did not go far enough in striking down the efforts of the federal appeals courts to deem the referendum on affirmative action an act of prejudice, Scalia went to the heart of the matter.

As National Review noted in a cogent editorial, it was more like “half a win” than something to celebrate. So long as three-fifths of the conservative members of the court are afraid to act on the logic of Chief Justice Roberts’ apt statement in an earlier case that “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race” and ban such discrimination outright, such efforts will continue to undermine both the Constitution and serve to feed racial discord.

But in addition to lauding Scalia’s brilliant logic, the opinion of Sotomayor merits our attention. The willingness of Sotomayor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who concurred with her dissent, to embrace a radical stance that would trash the constitutional protections of equal protection in order to enshrine what would amount to permanent racial quotas so as to redress past acts of discrimination is alarming in its own right. But conservatives who think making common cause with less ideological Republicans is counter-productive should ponder what would happen if the next president gets the chance to replace any of the five conservatives on the court with justices who might embrace Sotomayor’s opinions.

At the moment, the justice most likely to be replaced is Ginsburg who is 81 and not in the best of health. Some on the left are calling for her to resign now while President Obama can replace her with a fellow liberal rather than taking the chance that a Republican successor would be presented with the choice. But whether or not Ginsburg sticks to her guns and stays at the court until she has to be carried out, Republicans also need to consider that if a Democrat is sworn in by Roberts in January 2017, that would raise the very real possibility that it is one or more of the justices they count on to preserve an admittedly weak and inconsistent conservative majority that would be swapped out for a leftist like Sotomayor.

At the moment, three of the conservatives (Roberts, 59; Alito, 64; and Thomas, 65) seem young enough to wait out even two more terms of a Democratic president after Obama. But are even Tea Partiers willing to bet the Constitution on the health of the 78-year-old Scalia or even the weathervane 77-year-old Kennedy holding out until 2025?

Winning elections is not the only purpose of politics. Ideology matters and Republican politicians must be held accountable for behavior that undermines the basic principles of limited government. But unless they want to wake up in an America in which the Sotomayors can twist the Constitution into a pretzel to preserve every variety of liberal legal atrocity, right-wingers need to get over their hostility to more moderate Republicans and work to build an electoral majority rather than a purist schismatic faction.

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GOP Playing to Win in 2014

In both 2010 and 2012, Republicans threw away golden opportunities to take control of the Senate by nominating outlier candidates that turned likely victories into defeats. The most prominent examples, such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, and Missouri’s Todd Akin, illustrated not only how gaffe-ridden politicians could transform unpopular Democratic incumbents into winners but also the profound lack of seriousness on the part of many in the GOP. This kept Harry Reid in office (thanks to Angle) and in charge of the Senate. But it appears that not only have the issues and President Obama’s job performance put the Democrats in a tough position heading into the midterms, but that this year Republicans are behaving as if they are more interested in winning than in ideological purity or pursuing grudges.

The best example of this comes from Colorado where Democrat Mark Udall is up for reelection to his Senate seat. Udall, who was swept in on Obama’s coattails in the 2008 “hope and change” wave, was not thought to be among the most vulnerable Democrats this year. Demographic changes have transformed Colorado into a purple or light blue state in presidential elections. But it is still highly competitive with strong conservative tendencies, especially on issues like gun control, as two Democratic state senators discovered last fall when they were recalled after passing more stringent gun legislation. Udall is a liberal who says he does not regret his vote for ObamaCare and, unlike most Democrats running for reelection, would welcome campaign help from the president. But his ace in the hole this year was a divided Republican party.

The Colorado GOP looked to be ready to tear itself apart again this year with a crowded primary that many expected 2010 Senate nominee and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck—who lost what many felt was a winnable race to Michael Bennet—to win. But, as Politico reports, in a surprising development Buck and two other Republicans pulled out of the race in the last month to clear the field for Rep. Cory Gardner, the man that national Republicans wanted as the nominee. While Gardner won’t have an easy time against Udall, these developments will not only help Republicans in a race that is now considered a tossup; it may be a signal that the GOP, including its Tea Party faction, is playing to win in 2014.

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In both 2010 and 2012, Republicans threw away golden opportunities to take control of the Senate by nominating outlier candidates that turned likely victories into defeats. The most prominent examples, such as Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, and Missouri’s Todd Akin, illustrated not only how gaffe-ridden politicians could transform unpopular Democratic incumbents into winners but also the profound lack of seriousness on the part of many in the GOP. This kept Harry Reid in office (thanks to Angle) and in charge of the Senate. But it appears that not only have the issues and President Obama’s job performance put the Democrats in a tough position heading into the midterms, but that this year Republicans are behaving as if they are more interested in winning than in ideological purity or pursuing grudges.

The best example of this comes from Colorado where Democrat Mark Udall is up for reelection to his Senate seat. Udall, who was swept in on Obama’s coattails in the 2008 “hope and change” wave, was not thought to be among the most vulnerable Democrats this year. Demographic changes have transformed Colorado into a purple or light blue state in presidential elections. But it is still highly competitive with strong conservative tendencies, especially on issues like gun control, as two Democratic state senators discovered last fall when they were recalled after passing more stringent gun legislation. Udall is a liberal who says he does not regret his vote for ObamaCare and, unlike most Democrats running for reelection, would welcome campaign help from the president. But his ace in the hole this year was a divided Republican party.

The Colorado GOP looked to be ready to tear itself apart again this year with a crowded primary that many expected 2010 Senate nominee and Tea Party favorite Ken Buck—who lost what many felt was a winnable race to Michael Bennet—to win. But, as Politico reports, in a surprising development Buck and two other Republicans pulled out of the race in the last month to clear the field for Rep. Cory Gardner, the man that national Republicans wanted as the nominee. While Gardner won’t have an easy time against Udall, these developments will not only help Republicans in a race that is now considered a tossup; it may be a signal that the GOP, including its Tea Party faction, is playing to win in 2014.

Udall is hoping that he can do to Gardner what Bennet did to Buck in 2010 and define a man who is not that well known statewide as an extremist. The success of this familiar Democratic strategy depends on tarring the GOP standard-bearer as a foe of women in an effort to distract the public from Obama’s woes and ObamaCare. Gardner is a social conservative, but he has moderated his views on abortion enough to survive the attack provided he doesn’t hand Udall any Akin-style moronic quotes about rape that will sink him. But with a united party behind him and enough money at his disposal, Gardner has an even chance of knocking off Udall. At the very least, he will force Democrats to spend heavily to defend a seat they thought was not in as much danger as some of their seats in red states like Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alaska.

But the point here is that rather than make a suicidal run at Gardner, Buck cut a deal with him and is now running for the congressional seat that he is vacating. The same was true of the other Republicans who decided that the smart thing to do was to let the strongest candidate have an easy path to November. Tea Partiers who railed last year at establishment types like Karl Rove for wanting winnable Senate candidates may now be listening to reason. Gardner and other Republicans must still prove that they have the campaign discipline that will help them fend off the faux “war on women” smears Democrats will hurl at them and stick to the economy and ObamaCare. If they do, Harry Reid won’t be the majority leader next January.

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The GOP’s Unpopularity Is…Complicated.

An eye-opening observation from Stuart Rothenberg in Roll Call about the relative popularity and unpopularity of the Democrats and the Republicans: “Independent voters had almost identical feelings about both parties,” despite the fact that Democrats have a 9-point advantage when those polled by the New York Times/CBS News were asked if they view the parties favorably or unfavorably.

“I assumed most of the Democratic brand advantage stemmed from the GOP’s terrible reputation among independents,” Rothenberg writes. “But the survey showed that while 31 percent of independents had a favorable view of the GOP, 30 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. And while 60 percent of independents had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, 61 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.”

What this means, he says, is that the problem with Republican numbers is that Republicans told pollster they have an unfavorable view of the GOP. This makes sense. Tea Partiers dislike the Republican “establishment”; more mainline Republican voters do not think highly of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Each side thinks the force they dislike defines the GOP at present, so they say they don’t like the GOP much.

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An eye-opening observation from Stuart Rothenberg in Roll Call about the relative popularity and unpopularity of the Democrats and the Republicans: “Independent voters had almost identical feelings about both parties,” despite the fact that Democrats have a 9-point advantage when those polled by the New York Times/CBS News were asked if they view the parties favorably or unfavorably.

“I assumed most of the Democratic brand advantage stemmed from the GOP’s terrible reputation among independents,” Rothenberg writes. “But the survey showed that while 31 percent of independents had a favorable view of the GOP, 30 percent had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. And while 60 percent of independents had an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, 61 percent had an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.”

What this means, he says, is that the problem with Republican numbers is that Republicans told pollster they have an unfavorable view of the GOP. This makes sense. Tea Partiers dislike the Republican “establishment”; more mainline Republican voters do not think highly of Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Each side thinks the force they dislike defines the GOP at present, so they say they don’t like the GOP much.

This is actually startlingly good news for the GOP in the upcoming elections, because despite this supposed antipathy, when push comes to shove and it’s time to go to the polling booth, self-identified partisan votes almost always show up and vote for the party to which they belong.

Despite silly claims to the contrary, both John McCain and Mitt Romney received record numbers of votes among self-described Republicans, and with the exception of some numbers in Ohio, there’s little evidence to support the claim that millions of Republican voters “stayed home” in 2012 and helped swing the election to Barack Obama. In fact, in the end, Romney received 1 million more votes than McCain did, while Obama’s vote total declined by nearly 4 million.

The Democrats are going to work hard to try and make the electorate act as it did in 2012, but the president will not be on the ticket and they will be lucky to have a third of the money they had to spend in 2012 in getting out the vote. If the GOP base turns out in November—and there’s little reason to think it won’t, with ObamaCare on the line and with this final opportunity to send a message to the White House while Obama is in office—and independents aren’t feeling especially antipathetic toward Republicans, it could be a very significant Election Day indeed.

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Cruz to Rand: Tea Party ≠ Isolationist

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

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Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

The assumption that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party agree with Paul on foreign policy is as much a product of liberal mainstream media manipulation as is the canard that they are racists. Those who identify with or view the movement favorably share a common mindset about the need to push back against the expansion of big government and the tax and spend policies that are its foundation. But many of those who call themselves Tea Partiers want nothing to do with Paul’s antipathy for a strong defense and unwillingness to maintain a stalwart U.S. presence abroad to stand up for our allies and our values.

Cruz has carved out a niche for himself among those most antagonistic to the party establishment as well as the liberal big government machine. But today he outlined a point on which he, and many other grass roots conservatives part company with Paul:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said in an interview aired Sunday.” “We are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. U.S. leadership is critical in the world. I agree we should be reluctant to deploy military force aboard, but there’s a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said ‘Tear down this wall.’ Those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

In doing so, Cruz drew a clear distinction between his beliefs and a Paulite view of America’s place in the world that is for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Obama’s predilection for retreat from confrontations with aggressors such as Iran or Russia.

Paul sought to align himself with Reagan’s foreign policy views on Fox News Sunday by declaring that his “reluctance for war” shouldn’t be confused with a “lack of resolve.” But to defend that position he cited an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the crisis in the Ukraine by Henry Kissinger as something he agreed with.

While no one doubts Dr. Kissinger’s deep store of knowledge about foreign policy, his piece combined common sense about the limits of America’s ability to undo Russia’s seizure of the Crimea with a sorry rationalization for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The former secretary of state’s citation of Russian claims to the Ukraine and attempt to argue against strong Western outrage about this crime was exactly the wrong message to send to Russia at a time when it is trying to subvert the independence of that country in order to reassemble in one form or another the late and unlamented Tsarist/Soviet Empire.

The article was a cri de Coeur for a revival not of Reaganite foreign policy but of Kissinger’s own amoral détente with the Soviets that treated human rights (including the fate of a persecuted Soviet Jewry) as an unimportant detail. This sort of “realism” has always had its advocates within the GOP but it was exactly the sort of Republican establishment mindset that Reagan bitterly opposed in the 1976 and 1980 GOP primaries.

For the last generation, the Republican mainstream has, with some notable exceptions, united behind policies that emphasized a strong defense and a foreign policy that rejected retreat in the face of aggression while also upholding American values. It is interesting as well as gratifying to see that for all of his desire to torch the establishment on every other issue, Ted Cruz is very much part of this consensus. Paul can pretend he was more influenced by Reagan than his extremist father (whose views on foreign policy would make him more at home on the far left than the right). But as long as he remains an outlier on this crucial element of presidential politics, he shouldn’t be thought of as representing all Tea Partiers, let alone most Republicans.

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The Tea Party Five Years In

This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it. 

1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.

2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)

3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.

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This past week marked the fifth anniversary of the creation of the Tea Party Movement. Here are some thoughts on it. 

1. The Tea Party arose from a justifiable concern with the expanding size, scope and reach of the federal government. It was an important factor in the epic 2010 mid-term election. At its best it has integrated itself into the GOP while continuing to apply pressure to Republican leaders to re-limit government and waring them against making careless and unprincipled deals.

2. Particularly early on, the elite media smeared the Tea Party as racist. The double standard was particularly evident in how the press covered the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which was responsible for violence, sexual assaults, arson and general filth in the areas it choose to occupy. If the Tea Party had committed a fraction of the lawless things done by OWS, it would have dominated news coverage for months. But because OWS was advancing a progressive agenda, the transgressions were politely overlooked. (I wrote about the bias here.)

3. The Tea Party has been an important factor in the political rise of senators like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, who have been outstanding additions to Congress. But it has also gotten behind other candidates in primaries – Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and others — who flamed out. The result is that Democrats still retain control of the Senate when they could easily have lost control of it.

4.  How positive a force the Tea Party ends up being depends in large part on whether its populist sentiments are channeled in a constructive or destructive way. If the movement becomes one which finds its greatest satisfaction in (a) trying to excommunicate those whom they deem to be the ideologically impure — like those well-known leftists Senator Mitch McConnell and Representative Pete Sessions, both of whom have received 100 percent ratings by the American Conservative Union — and (b) championing tactics like shutting down the federal government, it will damage conservatism by discrediting it.

If on the other hand the Tea Party directs its energies toward supporting serious, principles candidates with cross-over appeal and who will advance far-reaching conservative reforms in areas like Medicare, health care, the tax code, elementary, secondary and higher education, and energy, it will be a hugely positive force in American politics.

5. It’s not clear right now which direction the Tea Party will go or what will ultimately become of it. At this particular moment the key to understanding what is animating members of the Tea Party is frustration and outright anger with what they derisively refer to as The Establishment, most especially the GOP establishment, which they see as supine, weak, craven, and timid. That is the thing I’ve heard most often from those who identify with the Tea Party – that Republicans, and in particular GOP leaders, are seized by an “abject fear” of the left, that they are constantly “caving it” to President Obama and Democrats, and simply unwilling to fight. 

Those feelings, while not wholly unjustified, have, I think, led the Tea Party down some blind alleys and into some silly mistakes. The danger is that those feelings are stoked by demagogues in and out of office and that they intensify; that the Tea Party becomes more agitated, more consumed by resentments, and more apocalyptic in its rhetoric and outlook. That would ultimately be self-destructive.

This fate isn’t a foregone conclusion by any means. The Tea Party movement itself (as opposed to some of the organizations that claim to speak for it) is more variegated than is commonly thought, political movements are subject to shifting currents, and Republicans would be unwise to give up on the Tea Party or render sweeping, definitive judgments about it. What Republicans have to hope for is that figures emerge whom members of the Tea Party trust and who can help guide and direct the Tea Party in constructive and conservative, rather than a destructive and radical, ways.

A great deal in American politics hinges on whether such individuals materialize. 

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The State of the Tea Party 2014

Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.

What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.

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Five years ago this week, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered an on-air tirade from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in which he talked about organizing a tea party to protest government bailouts and stimulus spending. What followed was the birth of a nationwide movement that adopted the name Tea Party that has transformed American politics. That anniversary was commemorated this week with a Capitol Hill conference of the Tea Party Patriots—one of a number of groups that seek to represent the views of this movement—at which a number of conservative politicians either sought to channel Santelli’s initial rabble-rousing spirit or to harness it to a more pragmatic campaign to win both houses of Congress and the White House. But those seeking to assess the current strength of the Tea Party idea are wrong to measure it solely in partisan political terms or even the relative influence of any of those who claim to fly the movement’s flag. The most important thing to realize about the Tea Party is that it is a broad set of ideas, not a coherent or distinctly organized movement that takes orders from any one leader or leaders.

What both conservatives and liberals often forget about the Tea Party is that the driving spirit of this movement is not so much Republican as it is one of rebellion against those who defend a Washington status quo that perpetuates a government tax and spending machine. The mainstream media sees the Tea Party as the embodiment of the Washington event at which, like all such conferences, an eclectic gathering of ordinary citizens network with political outliers. But the Tea Party that turned the 2010 midterms into a historic GOP landslide is more than a convention of grass roots activists. It is the expression of frustration with the inability of the political class to reform itself and preserve the vision of limited government promised in the Constitution.

Like all such movements the transition from the stump to the halls of government power has been rough. Effecting change in a democracy is more than a matter of demonstrations or even getting out the vote. It requires persuasion and a commitment to the sort of nose-to-the-grindstone political work that is antithetical to the spirit of rebellion Santelli and those who followed him have sought to harness.

Senator Mike Lee of Utah summed up the challenge for the Tea Party when he said this week, “The way to defeat establishment inertia is not by finding and discarding heretics as much as it is about winning a civil debate. A civil debate, not a civil war.” He’s right about that and those who see only a war between the party establishment and the activists need to remember that the Tea Party has already won the ideological war within the Republican Party.

Though coverage of the Tea Party mostly focuses on the fights between Senator Ted Cruz and some of his GOP colleagues, what is often forgotten is that there is no debate within the party about the principles that the Tea Party movement embodies. All endorse the Tea Party view about the need to fight back against President Obama’s efforts to increase the power of government. Anger against ObamaCare and a government that is too big to fail and too powerful to be held accountable for its out-of-control spending is universal in the GOP. The only differences are about tactics, not the ideas that catapulted the movement into the public square after the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act were past by a Democratic Congress in 2009 and 2010.

The Tea Party has stumbled at times when it allowed the emotions of the debate to overwhelm good sense and dictate destructive tactics like the government shutdown to undermine their cause. It has sometimes pursued party purity over the less exciting business of building governing coalitions. But what its liberal critics forget is that while Ted Cruz and government shutdown advocates are not trusted by most Americans, the same public anger that gave birth to the Tea Party is even greater today than it was five years ago. The challenge for Republicans is to remember that the Tea Party is not just a bunch of activists who go to conventions but, in fact, a broad cross-section of Americans who share their basic beliefs about the role of government. That mass movement of voters took liberal pundits by surprise in 2010 when the Tea Party that they derided as a band of racist cranks turned out in numbers sufficient to oust a Democratic Congress.

The Tea Party is not tied to specific organizations bearing the name but to an idea of reform. To the extent that Republicans continue to embody that concept while also showing themselves worthy of the people’s trust, they will win. That’s why, for all of its ups and downs in recent years, Democrats who prefer to believe the myth that the Tea Party is a top-down concept created by corporate funders may discover they are as wrong about it today as they were when it first started. 

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Why the Tea Party and GOP Just Can’t Quit Each Other

The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.

Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:

Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.

Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:

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The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.

Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:

Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.

Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”

Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:

In email exchanges with the Washington Examiner, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project vigorously defended Bevin’s personal integrity and conservative credentials. They denied accusations that they targeted McConnell, and continue to invest in Bevin, in an attempt to garner political power, gain attention or raise money.

“Between McConnell and Bevin, McConnell was the only one with the opportunity to prevent TARP from becoming a reality, and he enthusiastically voted for it and convinced others to follow,” Madison Project spokesman Daniel Horowitz said.

One GOP operative even tells Drucker that the groups backing Bevin are destroying their credibility the way they think the party establishment has by supporting the wrong candidates: “That stain does not come out … It’s like the NRSC endorsing Charlie Crist. It leaves a lasting impression whether that’s fair or not.”

The Crist insult is particularly timely, as the former Florida governor is now running for office as a Democrat. Regardless of the virtues of either candidate, however, it’s important that neither side lose perspective. That the Tea Party and the establishment would continue to clash was inevitable. The idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t, coexist within the same party structure is bunk.

In his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington noted that the political party was–despite some of the Founders’ distaste for it–the “distinctive institution of the modern polity.” The other political institutions were in some way “adaptations” or “carry-overs” from earlier systems. Bureaucracies weren’t new, nor were parliaments, elections, courts, or even constitutional frameworks. Huntington allows for one possible competitor to parties as the distinctive modern political institution: federalism, though he dismisses it as not unique the way parties were. Either way, the American system had created something new.

It’s worth quoting what he says next to fully understand why the Tea Party is such an important component of American politics:

Cliques and factions exist in all political systems. So also do parties in the sense of informal groups competing with each other for power and influence. But parties in the sense of organizations are a product of modern politics. Political parties exist in the modern polity because only modern political systems require institutions to organize mass participation in politics. The political party as an organization had its forerunners in the revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first appearance of organized political parties, however, comes in the eighteenth century in those countries where political participation was first expanded, in America and then in France. The shift, in Rudolph’s terms, from the politics of status to the politics of opinion, led to the creation of the political party as a political institution.

I am particularly fond of that phrase: “the shift … from the politics of status to the politics of opinion.” The left’s major electoral vehicle today is the Democratic Party, which has shifted from the politics of opinion back to the politics of status. If you’re related to a Kennedy, a Clinton, or a Dingell, you’re still being handed power the moment you ask for it. The Tea Party, to its great credit, does not want that replicated on the right. It isn’t just against the politics of status but it’s also representative of the politics of opinion.

But those opinions are fulfilled through the right’s manifestation of what Huntington called the distinctive institution of modern politics: the party. And the two are compatible not despite their penchant for clashing but precisely because of it. Matt Bevin has every right to challenge Mitch McConnell, and Tea Party groups have every right to support Bevin. But this particular election is shaping up to be a primary for its own sake. And the idea that a politician should be elected merely because of the Tea Party label–well, that’s the politics of status.

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