Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tea Party

Cheerios, Coca-Cola, and the Left’s Tea Party Obsession

In a Friday blog post on yet another MSNBC controversy in which the network made biracial families the punch line of awkward joke, Pete asked an interesting question–and received something of an answer during the Super Bowl. Pete’s subject was the MSNBC tweet noting a Cheerios ad that featured a biracial family; the MSNBC Twitter feed snarked that the “rightwing” would hate the ad. This had come on the heels of an MSNBC television segment that ridiculed black children adopted by white families, which itself had been preceded by numerous troublesome race-related moments on MSNBC.

So Pete asked why the controversy over the Cheerios ad prompted an apology from station President Phil Griffin, and not any number of others. One explanation is that in this case an apology was demanded of him by the RNC, which threatened to boycott the network, working under the questionable assumption that people watch MSNBC. (The evidence suggests otherwise.) But another answer could be found in a different ad controversy during the Super Bowl, and what it says about the mindset of today’s leftists.

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In a Friday blog post on yet another MSNBC controversy in which the network made biracial families the punch line of awkward joke, Pete asked an interesting question–and received something of an answer during the Super Bowl. Pete’s subject was the MSNBC tweet noting a Cheerios ad that featured a biracial family; the MSNBC Twitter feed snarked that the “rightwing” would hate the ad. This had come on the heels of an MSNBC television segment that ridiculed black children adopted by white families, which itself had been preceded by numerous troublesome race-related moments on MSNBC.

So Pete asked why the controversy over the Cheerios ad prompted an apology from station President Phil Griffin, and not any number of others. One explanation is that in this case an apology was demanded of him by the RNC, which threatened to boycott the network, working under the questionable assumption that people watch MSNBC. (The evidence suggests otherwise.) But another answer could be found in a different ad controversy during the Super Bowl, and what it says about the mindset of today’s leftists.

A major difference between the Cheerios tweet and, say, the bizarre outburst on Melissa Harris-Perry’s political talk show is that the latter at least had a tangential connection to politics. Harris-Perry and her guests were mocking Mitt Romney’s adopted grandson, and so could at least claim they had a political target in sight when firing away at the innocent youngster. It is still appalling and inexcusable, but it could plausibly be portrayed as a political segment gone awry.

The same cannot be said for the tweet about the Cheerios ad. That tweet was much more revealing about MSNBC and the American left today. It’s true that, as Pete notes, MSNBC created an atmosphere in which it’s easy to imagine the tweeter (who was fired, apparently) following suit. But it was indeed a new low. When an MSNBC host like Chris Matthews accuses Newt Gingrich of racist word pronunciation, he’s trying to delegitimize an opponent of the president, to whom Matthews and his network are disturbingly loyal.

Behind the Cheerios tweet, however, was the assumption that conservative Americans–not Republican presidential candidates taking advantage of a wedge issue, but citizens throughout the country–are inherently bigoted people. Not only does this display the disdain leftists have for their fellow Americans, but it shows they can’t look at a biracial couple without thinking about the intersection of race and politics. If that’s the case, we’ve reached a troubling level of politicization of breakfast cereals, to say the least.

And that dynamic was again on display last night during the Super Bowl broadcast. Though the Cheerios ad went off without a hitch, there was another “controversial” ad: a Coca-Cola commercial presented a mash-up of people singing America the Beautiful in various languages, to emphasize the U.S. as a melting pot of immigrants who embraced their new country while retaining their cultural roots. Considering the pessimism at home and the anti-Americanism abroad, the ad was subtly uplifting without being too saccharine.

Allen West disagreed. The former congressman thought it “disturbing” and insufficiently pro-assimilation. West was not representative of the broader conservative political movements such as the Tea Party. News organizations that tried to push a conservative backlash story relied on unknown Twitter commenters–though by such a standard the entire left can also be painted as racist, misogynistic, etc.

But the more interesting reason the left pushed those stories was not because they found a genuine Tea Party backlash but because they predicted one. Twitter lit up in the moments during and after the ad with leftists proclaiming this to be yet another ad conservatives wouldn’t like, with the Tea Party specifically named. That is, the left cannot hear foreign languages or look at immigrants without being filled with politically-based revulsion.

This trend is yet another example of what Sonny Bunch has been calling the “emptiness of a politicized life.” It’s worth reading through Bunch’s various discussions of the phenomenon, because he pulls together a broad array of examples that get at the depth of the problem. But how obsessed by politics do you have to be to see a cereal or soda commercial during the Super Bowl and immediately think about what Tea Partiers might say? It’s unhealthy, and–as Phil Griffin seems to understand–it’s a far more problematic iteration of the ever-deteriorating political rationality of the left.

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Huckabee and the Other GOP Civil War

Ever since the era of Ronald Reagan, victorious Republican coalitions have always been built via coalitions of disparate but essentially compatible factions. While most of the mainstream liberal media these days tends to lump Republicans into only two categories–establishment types and Tea Party extremists–the same groupings that worked together to elected Reagan as well as the first and second George Bush are still there. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks are still the building blocks of the right’s hope to take back Congress and the White House. But the days of GOP unity are long gone as some elements of that coalition are already at odds. Libertarians led by Senator Rand Paul have already clearly broken with the conservative consensus on maintaining a strong American presence abroad and seem willing to not only retreat from the Middle East, as Barack Obama seems to intend, but to pull back on other fronts as well. Disagreements over budget cuts and the sequester have also highlighted the increasing tensions between the fiscal hawks, libertarians, and the shrinking constituency for a strong national defense. But with the campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination already in its early stages, perhaps the most fascinating battle is the one that might be brewing between libertarians and the evangelicals.

The possibility for such a conflict was displayed on Friday when, as Politico reports, the Club for Growth issued a statement slamming former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for what it considered his insufficiently conservative fiscal record. Given that Huckabee–though a force among Christian conservatives–will be committing against a deep Republican bench of governors and senators that include Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and even the 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, the decision of the Club to launch a pre-emptive strike on the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus seems like a curious decision. Why would the home office of the libertarian critique of tax-and-spend liberalism think it worth the time and the effort to take a shot at a favorite of Christian conservatives in this manner? Are they really that concerned about nipping a Huckabee boomlet in the bud before it gains momentum and ultimately harms the chances of candidates like Paul, Cruz, or Walker that are more to their liking? Or is this merely the opening shot of much bigger struggle inside the conservative tent for control of the direction of the party or at least its Tea Party wing?

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Ever since the era of Ronald Reagan, victorious Republican coalitions have always been built via coalitions of disparate but essentially compatible factions. While most of the mainstream liberal media these days tends to lump Republicans into only two categories–establishment types and Tea Party extremists–the same groupings that worked together to elected Reagan as well as the first and second George Bush are still there. Fiscal conservatives, libertarians, social conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks are still the building blocks of the right’s hope to take back Congress and the White House. But the days of GOP unity are long gone as some elements of that coalition are already at odds. Libertarians led by Senator Rand Paul have already clearly broken with the conservative consensus on maintaining a strong American presence abroad and seem willing to not only retreat from the Middle East, as Barack Obama seems to intend, but to pull back on other fronts as well. Disagreements over budget cuts and the sequester have also highlighted the increasing tensions between the fiscal hawks, libertarians, and the shrinking constituency for a strong national defense. But with the campaign for the 2016 GOP nomination already in its early stages, perhaps the most fascinating battle is the one that might be brewing between libertarians and the evangelicals.

The possibility for such a conflict was displayed on Friday when, as Politico reports, the Club for Growth issued a statement slamming former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee for what it considered his insufficiently conservative fiscal record. Given that Huckabee–though a force among Christian conservatives–will be committing against a deep Republican bench of governors and senators that include Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and even the 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, the decision of the Club to launch a pre-emptive strike on the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucus seems like a curious decision. Why would the home office of the libertarian critique of tax-and-spend liberalism think it worth the time and the effort to take a shot at a favorite of Christian conservatives in this manner? Are they really that concerned about nipping a Huckabee boomlet in the bud before it gains momentum and ultimately harms the chances of candidates like Paul, Cruz, or Walker that are more to their liking? Or is this merely the opening shot of much bigger struggle inside the conservative tent for control of the direction of the party or at least its Tea Party wing?

What needs to be first understood about these core GOP constituencies is that there is considerable overlap between those who call themselves Tea Partiers and those who identify with Christian conservative causes. Every single one of those Republican leaders who have sought to mobilize party support on behalf of cutting government spending and holding the line on taxes can appeal to evangelicals on key issues like abortion. Indeed, support for the pro-life position is virtually a given in the contemporary Republican Party and encompasses a consensus that even includes so-called moderates like Christie.

That said, although Democrats have emphasized social issues in the last two election cycles as they sought to smear their opponents as waging a faux “war on women” on issues like abortion and the ObamaCare contraception mandate, most Republicans have spent more time in recent years talking about fiscal issues and ObamaCare than abortion. Many of those GOP candidates who were labeled as culture warriors, like the disastrous Missouri GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin, not only lost but helped sink other Republicans as well. As a result, in a party that was primarily focused on stopping or repealing ObamaCare, we haven’t heard as much from Christian conservatives.

But the 2012 GOP primaries should have reminded us that the social-issue vote could still be a powerful force. By winning over the same constituency that made Huckabee a force in 2008, Rick Santorum came from the back of the pack to be the last man standing in the Republican contest other than the eventual nominee Mitt Romney. If groups like the Club for Growth are worried about Huckabee returning to the presidential fray it is because they know that not only is his core constituency an important voting bloc, but that those who identify as evangelicals are often some of the same people rallying to the Tea Party banner.

With a little more than two years to go before that crucial 2016 Iowa caucus, it’s far from clear how exactly these factions or the potential candidates will sort themselves out. But whoever emerges as the frontrunner in Iowa is going to have to appeal to both of these key constituencies. Christie may hope to win via Romney’s more centrist approach as the sole moderate conservative in the field. But as Santorum proved, anyone who can corner the evangelical vote will have a chance in Iowa and many other states. Their votes will be all the more crucial since so many potential candidates will be competing for the same libertarian and Tea Party votes.

Blasting Huckabee, who has shut down the radio show he had for the last year and a half and appears to be gearing up for another presidential run, may seem premature. But the willingness of one of the leading libertarian/fiscal conservative think tanks to put him in the cross-hairs shows that the real GOP civil war may not be the bally-hooed conflict between the Karl Rove types and the grass roots activists that we’ve been hearing so much about in the last year. Instead it may turn out to be a complicated and often confusing battle for the hearts and minds of fiscal conservatives who also happen to think of themselves as Christian conservatives.

That’s why Club for Growth seems so eager to take out Huckabee before he even gets started as well as why many of those GOP candidates who have been obsessing about ObamaCare and taxes in the last year may now start to spend more time talking about abortion and other issues of interest to evangelicals. The Republican who can best unite both factions will have a substantial advantage in 2016.

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Has John Boehner Learned His Lesson?

It was a short sound bite but it was replayed endlessly yesterday, angering some conservatives and leaving liberals chortling. When House Speaker John Boehner was asked during a press conference with other Republican leaders about criticisms from conservative activist groups of the budget deal struck by Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, he exploded:

REPORTER: Mr. Speaking, most major conservative groups have put out statements blasting this deal. Are you –

BOEHNER: You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?

REPORTER: Are you worried –

BOEHNER: They are using our members and they are using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.

This is not the first time Boehner has responded to criticism with anger and frustration. But it was a dramatic change of tone on the part of the convivial and often-teary-eyed and sentimental House speaker when it came to the conservative groups and their Tea Party supporters within his caucus. After all, it was only three months ago that Boehner was dragged reluctantly into a damaging government shutdown by the same organizations and members who were carping about the Ryan deal yesterday. Though no one should expect Boehner to be a changed man from the indecisive speaker of the shutdown crisis, he may have learned at least a couple of important lessons from that difficult experience. The days of the Tea Party tale wagging the House Republican big dog appear to be over.

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It was a short sound bite but it was replayed endlessly yesterday, angering some conservatives and leaving liberals chortling. When House Speaker John Boehner was asked during a press conference with other Republican leaders about criticisms from conservative activist groups of the budget deal struck by Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, he exploded:

REPORTER: Mr. Speaking, most major conservative groups have put out statements blasting this deal. Are you –

BOEHNER: You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?

REPORTER: Are you worried –

BOEHNER: They are using our members and they are using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.

This is not the first time Boehner has responded to criticism with anger and frustration. But it was a dramatic change of tone on the part of the convivial and often-teary-eyed and sentimental House speaker when it came to the conservative groups and their Tea Party supporters within his caucus. After all, it was only three months ago that Boehner was dragged reluctantly into a damaging government shutdown by the same organizations and members who were carping about the Ryan deal yesterday. Though no one should expect Boehner to be a changed man from the indecisive speaker of the shutdown crisis, he may have learned at least a couple of important lessons from that difficult experience. The days of the Tea Party tale wagging the House Republican big dog appear to be over.

The incident and the debate about the budget deal are bringing out into the open a conservative civil war that had previously been conducted behind closed doors, at least as far as the House leadership was concerned. Prior to the shutdown there was little doubt that Boehner wasn’t happy about the way some House conservatives and, even more importantly, advocacy groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks were helping to limit his options in negotiations with the Democrats. Though he made it clear enough that he knew the decision to try and force the defunding of ObamaCare was doomed to failure and that it would hurt his party, Boehner wound up bowing to the demands of Heritage, Ted Cruz, and the rest of the suicide caucus in the House.

The thinking then was that Boehner worried that if he thwarted those who believed such radical tactics were the only possible response to the health-care law’s implementation, the House Republican membership would be irretrievably split and his speakership might be threatened. What followed was a disaster that not only materially damaged the Republican Party but, just as importantly, served to obscure the ObamaCare rollout fiasco for three weeks as the mainstream media focused instead on those who had warned him against letting himself be buffaloed into a futile shutdown. After 17 days of a shutdown, Republicans were forced to give in having accomplished nothing other than to make his party and congressional Republicans look just like the extremist caricature Democrats had tried to paint them as being.

However, the conclusion of this drama also exploded the myth that Heritage and company really had the power to thwart any effort to pull back from the brink. When Boehner finally concluded a deal that was little more than a face-saving surrender to end the shutdown, the activists screamed bloody murder and warned they would back primary challenges against any Republican who went along. But the tide had shifted against them and few heeded their threats. By the time the dust settled, even some on the right like Senator Rand Paul were admitting the whole thing had been a mistake.

The speaker emerged from this trial chastened by the experience but perhaps also realizing that the bark of the Tea Party caucus was worse than its bite. Many Republicans will oppose the Ryan deal that more or less formalizes a truce with the Democrats on budget issues for the next year and Heritage and others will, as they did with the shutdown, try and make it a litmus test of conservative bona fides. But Boehner and even a conservative deep thinker like Ryan have rightly come to the conclusion that the agreement with Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray is not only as much as they can reasonably hope to get. Even more to the point, they understand that paralyzing the government and Congress with manufactured crises, in order to push for more deficit reduction and the entitlement reform the nation needs but won’t get so long as control of Congress is split between the two parties, is a critical mistake. The nation as a whole and even most rank-and-file Republicans have had enough of the shutdown mentality. Three months ago, it may have seemed as if Boehner had no choice but to accede to the demands of the Tea Partiers. The shutdown may have convinced him that he doesn’t have to do that anymore.

Having methodically worked his way to the leadership over the course of a long career in the House, Boehner is no pushover. But during his time as speaker he hasn’t exactly come across as the sort of politician whom challengers cross at their peril. But the events of the last few months may mean that he will never again be bullied into taking a course of action that he knows is mistaken. This week he has called the Tea Party’s bluff in exactly the manner that many in his party wish he had done back in September. If he sticks to this resolve, both the Congress and the Republican Party will be better off for it.

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Governor for President? Walker Volunteers.

On Friday, I wrote about the theory put forward by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy that a good president must first have been a governor of a state. His point was that Barack Obama’s inability to govern effectively is directly related to his lack of experience running anything but his mouth. I looked back at the bios of the 43 men who have been president and discovered that history’s verdict on this theory is inconclusive. Some of our greatest presidents have been governors: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. But some have also had no such experience—including arguably the two greatest in George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The same is true of the list of our worst presidents. I have two words for anyone who thinks being a governor guarantees success in the Oval Office: Jimmy Carter. While the complexity of the modern presidency and the enormous size of the government argue for the value of executive experience, leadership, not a resume, should be the priority.

But one possible Republican candidate for president doesn’t see this question in terms of shades of grey. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was profiled on ABC’s This Week this morning and left no doubt about his own interest in the presidency as well as in the fact that he thinks not being a governor is a deal breaker for Republicans looking for a 2016 standard-bearer. When asked about who should lead the GOP, he didn’t pull any punches:

I think its got to be an outsider, I think both the presidential and vice presidential nomination needs to be a former or current governor, people who have done successful things in their states, taken on big reforms, who are ready to move America forward.

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On Friday, I wrote about the theory put forward by House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy that a good president must first have been a governor of a state. His point was that Barack Obama’s inability to govern effectively is directly related to his lack of experience running anything but his mouth. I looked back at the bios of the 43 men who have been president and discovered that history’s verdict on this theory is inconclusive. Some of our greatest presidents have been governors: Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. But some have also had no such experience—including arguably the two greatest in George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The same is true of the list of our worst presidents. I have two words for anyone who thinks being a governor guarantees success in the Oval Office: Jimmy Carter. While the complexity of the modern presidency and the enormous size of the government argue for the value of executive experience, leadership, not a resume, should be the priority.

But one possible Republican candidate for president doesn’t see this question in terms of shades of grey. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was profiled on ABC’s This Week this morning and left no doubt about his own interest in the presidency as well as in the fact that he thinks not being a governor is a deal breaker for Republicans looking for a 2016 standard-bearer. When asked about who should lead the GOP, he didn’t pull any punches:

I think its got to be an outsider, I think both the presidential and vice presidential nomination needs to be a former or current governor, people who have done successful things in their states, taken on big reforms, who are ready to move America forward.

Asked about senators such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, Walker was just as blunt saying the Republican candidate had to be someone “removed from Congress.” Did that also apply to his Wisconsin political ally Paul Ryan? Walker again was not coy. Though he said, “if he [Ryan] had a fan club, I’d be the president of it,” he repeated that the GOP had to put forward a governor even if that meant rejecting in advance any consideration for the House Budget Committee chair and 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate.

While that sets up the Tea Party favorite as a clear alternative to Chris Christie, much of what Walker said in the interview with ABC’s Jon Karl will give little comfort to conservatives who reject the New Jersey governor as too much of a moderate to lead the GOP.

Walker’s talking point about the need for an outsider to reform Washington will resonate on the right that is boiling with discontent at the media surge that lifted Christie to prominence since his landslide reelection last week. But it’s not clear how they will react to his rejection of the Tea Party-led government shutdown. While many conservatives have treated criticism of the disastrous decision to shut down the government as something that only establishment traitors do, Walker dismissed it as counter-productive. Like Christie, Walker thinks Republicans need to make government work, not to sabotage it.

Speaking in this manner is good politics as well as good policy for Walker. The public was disgusted by the shutdown. So, too, are most Republicans who now realize that wasting weeks on a kamikaze attack on ObamaCare was not only futile but it also distracted the country from the administration’s health-care fiasco. While, as with all other 2016 speculation, a lot can happen in the next two years before Republicans start voting, Walker is now positioning himself as a unique character that can draw support from both the GOP establishment and the party’s grass roots.

Walker’s outsider credentials are impeccable. As ABC recalled for its viewers, the Wisconsin governor was liberal public enemy No. 1 in 2011 and 2012 as he made good on his campaign promises and sought to reform his state’s finances by challenging the ability of public worker unions to raid the treasury at will. His counter-attack against the left was successful, and it led to violent attempts by union thugs and their liberal allies to shut down the Wisconsin legislature and to personally intimidate the governor and his family. He persevered and then survived an ill-considered attempt to oust him from office via a recall. All that made him a hero to conservatives and Tea Partiers. Though Christie fought some of the same battles, his reforms did not go as far and he lost much of the goodwill he originally had from conservatives with his embrace of President Obama after Hurricane Sandy.

Where Walker probably won’t be able to outdo Christie will be in the manner of his reelection. Though he is a clear favorite to win next November, Walker won’t be matching Christie’s impressive landslide in a blue state. Where Christie is a candidate who has obvious appeal in a general election, Walker remains someone who appeals more to the Republican base than to independents or moderate Democrats as is the case with Christie.

Even though he is distancing himself from both Congress as well as the Tea Party that helped bring him to prominence, the left’s targeting of Walker renders him largely bulletproof to the “RINO” smears that are routinely launched at any Republican who understands that Ted Cruz’s judgment is not to be trusted. Likewise, Senate conservative firebrands will be hard pressed to knock Walker’s proven record of administrative excellence and courage in standing up to liberal attacks. The plethora of conservative candidates will mean they will be contending against each other for the affection of right-wing activists and voters. Walker’s obvious interest in the presidency also means that Christie will have some formidable competition for centrist Republicans, albeit from a candidate who can count on his share of conservative backers.

Being a governor doesn’t mean Walker or Christie or any other person with that line on their resume is up to the challenges of the presidency. But the unpopularity of Congress in the wake of the shutdown—something that the next budget battle isn’t likely to improve—means that we will be hearing more about a rivalry between these two in the months and years to come.

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Democrats Want to Win. Does the GOP?

In the classic Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film State of the Union one of the characters, a veteran Republican politician played by Adolf Menjou, defined the difference between the country’s two major parties thusly, “They’re in and we’re out.” That cynical view summed up the way party hacks viewed the electoral process. The only goal was to win; ideology, principle and policies were secondary considerations at best. American politics has come a long way since the era of bosses and smoke-filled rooms that were essential to that story, loosely based on the rise of 1940 GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Pundits routinely tell us that we now live in an era when pure partisanship disconnected from ideology is on the wane. The civil war that threatens to tear apart contemporary Republicans, as Tea Party activists seek to slay the dragon of the GOP “establishment,” is an example of just how different things are today.

But not, apparently, in the Democratic Party. As today’s Politico story about Kentucky Democrats plotting to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell illustrates, some of the most liberal groups and donors in the country are putting aside any scruples about their most closely held principles in pursuit of winning nothing more than an election. As they have in more instances than you can count in the last decade, liberals are playing by the old rules of politics while their opponents are doing something entirely different. While they are opening themselves up for criticism from their base, it appears that a party once known as the epitome of anarchy is focused on one thing and one thing only: holding onto Congress.

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In the classic Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy film State of the Union one of the characters, a veteran Republican politician played by Adolf Menjou, defined the difference between the country’s two major parties thusly, “They’re in and we’re out.” That cynical view summed up the way party hacks viewed the electoral process. The only goal was to win; ideology, principle and policies were secondary considerations at best. American politics has come a long way since the era of bosses and smoke-filled rooms that were essential to that story, loosely based on the rise of 1940 GOP presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. Pundits routinely tell us that we now live in an era when pure partisanship disconnected from ideology is on the wane. The civil war that threatens to tear apart contemporary Republicans, as Tea Party activists seek to slay the dragon of the GOP “establishment,” is an example of just how different things are today.

But not, apparently, in the Democratic Party. As today’s Politico story about Kentucky Democrats plotting to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell illustrates, some of the most liberal groups and donors in the country are putting aside any scruples about their most closely held principles in pursuit of winning nothing more than an election. As they have in more instances than you can count in the last decade, liberals are playing by the old rules of politics while their opponents are doing something entirely different. While they are opening themselves up for criticism from their base, it appears that a party once known as the epitome of anarchy is focused on one thing and one thing only: holding onto Congress.

As Politico notes, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is no favorite of environmentalists. The Democrat’s likely candidate against McConnell is a supporter of the coal industry and a critic of the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to regulate the fossil fuel industry out of existence. But that isn’t stopping leading “climate change activists” and Democratic donors from lining up to help her with their wallets open.

“It is far better to win the Senate than have every senator on the same page,” [Susie Tompkins] Buell said in an email after an October fundraiser she and her husband, Mark, held for Grimes at their California home. “We can’t always be idealistic. Practicality is the political reality.”

Adolf Menjou couldn’t have put it any better.

For decades, the Democratic Party was wracked by dissension as liberal ideologues sought to purge conservatives from their ranks. Their efforts were largely successful, as the last of the Scoop Jackson Democrats have now left the Senate and the ranks of the Blue Dogs in the House have been thinned to a precious few. While Republicans were eliminating their liberal wing too, the left’s ascendency on one side of the aisle helped pave the way for the GOP revival that ended a half-century of unchallenged Democratic control of Congress. But when faced with a choice between winning an election and purifying their party of any remnants of centrism, liberals seemed to have learned their lesson. As they did in Pennsylvania when they backed a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat in Bob Casey in order to unseat Rick Santorum, liberal donors have their eye on the big prize and are resisting the impulse to nominate more ideologically compatible candidates in favor of someone who can help increase the size of the Democratic caucus in the Capitol.

This wouldn’t be important except for the fact that conservatives are heading in the opposite direction. Across the nation, Tea Partiers are more focused on ending the careers of Republicans that are insufficiently conservative than they are on defeating Democrats and say, making Harry Reid the minority leader rather than the man in charge of the majority. It’s hard not to sympathize with those who are tired of politics as usual and those who waffle rather than take strong stands on the issues. The choice between principle and winning is also not always so clear-cut, as some Tea Party challengers are good candidates and some establishment favorites are duds. But the main point here is that if one of the parties is only concerned with winning and much of their opposition is more interested in something else, you don’t need to be a master prognosticator to know which side is more likely to win.

In real life, politics is not a Frank Capra film where the honest good guys always triumph in the end. Assembling a congressional majority requires compromises and living with candidates that don’t always meet ideological litmus tests but give parties a better chance to win. It may be that in 2013, the answer to the question about the difference between the parties isn’t who’s out and who’s in but which one understands that basic fact of political life.

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Candidates, Not Process, Is the Key for GOP

A year ago, their defeat in the presidential election set off an understandable bout of introspection in many Republicans. This week’s defeat of GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race has set off another round of arguments about how the party can avoid the same fate in the future. However, some of the advice Republicans are getting is not likely to help them much. In particular, the recriminations about Cuccinelli’s campaign and the way he won his party’s nomination ignore the real problems of the GOP both in Virginia and elsewhere. One example of this is the New York Times’s front-page story today titled “GOP Weighs Limiting Clout of Right Wing.” The conceit of the story is that Cuccinelli’s winning the Republican nod for governor was primarily due to the party’s decision to choose its candidate via a convention rather than an open primary. Since conventions are, by definition, less representative of the general public, that allows “fringe” candidates (i.e. Tea Partiers) to emerge. Establishment figures that have been tearing down Cuccinelli all year are thus cited to blame all the GOP’s woes on such “fringe” characters and their supporters dragging it down to defeat.

To say that this is an oversimplification of the matter is an understatement. As I’ve written previously, Cuccinelli’s big problem wasn’t that he was an extremist. Nor was he foisted on an unwilling Republican party by a tiny band of outliers. If Republicans are to fix what is wrong with their party, it will not be by procedural tricks to ensure that Tea Partiers don’t get nominated. Rather, it will be because they recruit and run better candidates and more professional campaigns on issues that resonate with voters. Everything else is inside baseball and more about factional score settling than advancing the cause of conservatism.

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A year ago, their defeat in the presidential election set off an understandable bout of introspection in many Republicans. This week’s defeat of GOP candidate Ken Cuccinelli in the Virginia governor’s race has set off another round of arguments about how the party can avoid the same fate in the future. However, some of the advice Republicans are getting is not likely to help them much. In particular, the recriminations about Cuccinelli’s campaign and the way he won his party’s nomination ignore the real problems of the GOP both in Virginia and elsewhere. One example of this is the New York Times’s front-page story today titled “GOP Weighs Limiting Clout of Right Wing.” The conceit of the story is that Cuccinelli’s winning the Republican nod for governor was primarily due to the party’s decision to choose its candidate via a convention rather than an open primary. Since conventions are, by definition, less representative of the general public, that allows “fringe” candidates (i.e. Tea Partiers) to emerge. Establishment figures that have been tearing down Cuccinelli all year are thus cited to blame all the GOP’s woes on such “fringe” characters and their supporters dragging it down to defeat.

To say that this is an oversimplification of the matter is an understatement. As I’ve written previously, Cuccinelli’s big problem wasn’t that he was an extremist. Nor was he foisted on an unwilling Republican party by a tiny band of outliers. If Republicans are to fix what is wrong with their party, it will not be by procedural tricks to ensure that Tea Partiers don’t get nominated. Rather, it will be because they recruit and run better candidates and more professional campaigns on issues that resonate with voters. Everything else is inside baseball and more about factional score settling than advancing the cause of conservatism.

Let’s specify that those who complain about state parties relying on conventions rather than primaries are absolutely right. The idea of reviving the proverbial smoke-filled rooms where party bosses dickered and chose candidates without bothering to gain the consent of the rank and file, let alone the voters, is absurd. It is, in general, a way for small unrepresentative groups—such as Ron Paul’s libertarian foot soldiers—to gain control of party structures that they could not obtain if they were forced to win primaries.

However, the state convention method used to pick Cuccinelli is not to blame for the ultimate Democratic victory. There’s every reason to believe the state attorney general would have beaten Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling in a Republican primary, just as he did in the convention. The problem was that Bolling and his backers feared that he would lose a GOP primary so they sought to change the rules to turn such an election into an open vote in which independents and Democrats would also have a say in the Republican candidate rather than just members of the party. In response, Cuccinelli’s people reversed the decision and sought a convention that in addition to nominating him also gave him a genuine extremist as a running mate in the form of Minister E. W. Jackson, who did hurt the Republican campaign.

But the focus on process here is beside the point. As I wrote Tuesday night, had Cuccinelli’s Tea Party allies in Congress not shut down the government on October 1, that may have allowed the country more time to focus on the ObamaCare rollout disaster, a factor that might have allowed him to do better. But, Cuccinelli’s main problem in Virginia was the same faced by the more moderate Mitt Romney: the changing demographics in a state that has shifted from red to purple, if not blue, in the last generation.

Moreover, the narrative that the Tea Party is destroying the Republicans is a flimsy structure by which to explain everything that happens throughout the country. Not all Tea Partiers are bad electoral bets. In Utah, where Mike Lee upset incumbent Republican Bob Bennett in a 2012 state convention, that move had no impact on the GOP’s ability to hold a safe seat in a deep-red state. The same is true of Ted Cruz’s Texas primary victory in 2012 over a slightly less conservative Republican. The most flagrant instances where terrible Tea Party candidates have cost the GOP Senate seats—Sharon Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—happened when both won primaries over more electable Republicans.

Instead of grousing about conventions, Republicans need to focus on recruiting able people to run for office in the future. What Republicans need is the same thing that Democrats want: good candidates. They come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and political hues. Smart, able people will always be able to beat fringe figures if properly vetted and backed with money and organization. Any diversion from that simple truth will only lead the Republicans back to the same circular firing squad that they seem to trot out every time they lose an election. 

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Can the Tea Party Ever Accept Christie?

Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.

But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.

These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.

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Yesterday’s exit polls from New Jersey won’t easily be forgotten. They will be cited and repeated endlessly by pundits and Governor Chris Christie’s supporters to bolster his case for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Any Republican who can get 60 percent of the vote in a blue state is bound to become the subject of presidential speculation. But when a Republican who is pro-life and has fought a running battle with labor unions and Democrats over taxes and budgets does so, he parachutes into the first tier of any discussion of future candidates. That Christie did this while winning a shocking 57 percent of the women’s vote (against a female opponent), 51 percent of Hispanics and 21 percent of African-Americans gives him an almost inarguable case for his electability.

But as the emails and tweets that poured in almost as soon as the results were known showed, there is one sector of the Republican Party that isn’t singing hosannas about Christie’s ability to make inroads in constituencies that Republicans have been losing in recent years. Self-described Tea Partiers and other conservatives were having none of it. As far as they were concerned, the hoopla about Christie’s win was nothing more than the GOP “establishment” anointing another front-runner who was certain to lose in the same manner as previous moderate nominees like John McCain and Mitt Romney. Others were expressing disgust and claiming the party’s base would abandon Christie in 2016, something that would offset his ability to win the votes of independents and moderate Democrats. In their words, Christie was nothing more than a no-good RINO, whose nomination would mark another Republican betrayal of conservatives.

These comments underlined the cautionary remarks being made about Christie’s prospective candidacy this morning. He may be a formidable general-election candidate, but his ability to win Republican primaries remains an open question. Yet rather than merely accepting this piece of conventional wisdom, it might be appropriate to ask why it is that the right is so mad at Christie and whether he can gradually win their support, if not affection, over the course of the next three years.

If we’re looking for ideological differences, it’s hard to pin down what has gotten the Tea Party’s goat about Christie.

Unlike most successful blue-state Republicans, Christie is not a liberal on social issues. He’s pro-life and against gay marriage. And as far as fiscal issues are concerned—supposedly the core issue motivating the Tea Party—he seems to be one of them. He was elected on a platform calling for challenging the status quo on state spending and the influence of municipal and state employee unions and he has followed through on his promises. And though due to the fact that he had to work with a Democratic legislature he wasn’t able to push as far on that issue as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, he has his own list of triumphs that nearly match those won by that Tea Party idol. He defied the unions as well as the federal government to nix a tunnel project that would have sunk the state further in debt.

He did challenge Rand Paul and libertarians on foreign policy and security issues this past summer. But the belief that all Tea Partiers—who were mobilized to action by anger about ObamaCare and the stimulus, not by opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the war on Islamist terror—are uncomfortable with Christie’s support for a traditional strong Republican position on foreign policy and against isolationism is a dubious assumption.

As for immigration, something that is a key Tea Party issue, Christie is vulnerable as he now supports a New Jersey version of the DREAM Act and has reversed his position and endorsed an in-state tuition discount to illegals. But he has nowhere near the exposure on that issue as Marco Rubio. This will be one issue to watch to see if he evolves more toward a pro-immigration reform position or reverts to a more popular (at least as far as Republicans are concerned) opposition to liberalizing the system.

What, then, are they really mad about?

It starts with Christie’s embrace of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, a move that did the governor a world of political good at home but did nothing to help Mitt Romney’s hopes of an upset. That, along with a Republican National Convention speech that seemed to be all about Christie’s virtues rather than singing Romney’s praises, created a narrative in which the governor is dismissed by the right as a self-seeking opportunist who betrayed his party. That may be true, but if the party is looking for a presidential candidate who isn’t a ruthless opportunist, they need to reject virtually every other presumed candidate, including a Tea Party favorite like Ted Cruz.

Others dig deeper and claim he isn’t a true social conservative because although he opposed gay marriage, he eventually bowed to reality and gave up a hopeless legal appeal when his state Supreme Court indicated it would be rejected. Others claim his approval of a law banning so-called “conversion therapy” of gays also shows he’s a RINO. In other words, we’re talking about a conservative who has pushed the boundaries in his own state without ever betraying his principles to win liberal votes (as Romney did with the pro-abortion stand he adopted while running for office in Massachusetts) but didn’t bow to every dictate of the right.

More to the point, some on the right just don’t like the can-do credo he espouses about making government work even if it means working with Democrats. In this season of government shutdowns, which he rightly opposed, some see this as evidence of a lack of principle, not pragmatism. But what they forget is that Christie’s vaunted bipartisanship operated from a position of strength in which he forced Democrats to operate within his frame of reference of reform, not a weak refusal to upset the applecart.

As for the claim that Christie is yet another moderate Republican who can achieve nothing more than a respectable loss in the manner of McCain or Romney, that seems another dubious assumption. Neither McCain nor Romney was Christie’s equal as a communicator and especially as a retail politician. Nor he is another Northeastern Republican doomed to failure in GOP primaries like Giuliani, whose loss was foreordained by his pro-abortion stand.

There are good reasons to doubt whether Christie can win in 2016. As much as he’s been in the limelight, he has never been tested on the national stage before the way he will be if he runs for president. His thin skin and irascible tough-guy personality is part of his unique everyman charm, but that may not wear as well on a presidential candidate as it does on a governor of New Jersey. There are also the unanswered questions about his health that, despite his disclaimers, cannot be entirely dismissed.

But if we’re looking for reasons why Tea Partiers cannot abide Christie, we have to come to grips with the fact that most of this is more about atmospherics than actual disagreements. While his attitude may turn off some conservatives, his ability to win elections as a conservative must open up for them the possibility that this unique politician may be a chance for Republicans to reverse the liberal tide that Obama has been riding the last several years. As of the moment, that is just speculation. But one suspects that as we get closer to 2016, more conservatives will come to the conclusion that they much prefer dealing with his faults than contemplating eight years of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

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Va Lessons: ObamaCare v. the Tea Party

The Virginia governor’s race was supposed to prove how the Tea Party destroyed the GOP. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to be too extreme and too much of a right-winger to be competitive. McAuliffe, who had a double-digit lead as late as two weeks ago, was coasting to victory on the strength of the national disgust over the government shutdown that hit Northern Virginia with its large number of federal employees hard. But once the shutdown ended and the country began to take notice of the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, the dynamic in Virginia changed. While liberal pundits will probably be tying themselves in knots to discount the ObamaCare factor, there’s little question that Cuccinelli’s big comeback that wound up turning a rout into a narrow election was primarily due to the way the president’s signature health-care legislation changed the political mood of the nation. A website that didn’t work was one thing. But the last week, during which the president’s broken promises about keeping coverage were exposed (a problem made worse by the disingenuous spin by the president and his press spokesman), not only motivated more of the GOP base to turn out in Virginia but had to have lost Democrats some swing voters.

The real lessons from the Virginia vote turn out to be a lot more complicated than the simplistic idea that the Tea Party’s rise would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. The reason why Cuccinelli fell short in Virginia was due in part to the way the national party abandoned his cause and allowed him to be massively outspent. This is something angry Tea Partiers won’t forget. But they should also realize that the hole Cuccinelli was in two weeks ago was also due to the shutdown they had recklessly engineered. In the end, the two factors may have balanced each other out, leaving the real problem for the GOP the same one that sunk Mitt Romney there in 2012: changing demographics that have transformed a once red state into a purple or light blue one.

That factor will reassure Democrats that they are still the wave of the future. But rather than celebrate, they should be thinking about the way anger about ObamaCare can transform elections. Liberals may still be clinging to their belief that eventually the website will be fixed and everyone will love it. But the last week of anger about broken promises and dropped coverage should alert them to the likelihood that it will not only continue to be unpopular but will grow more so as its impact on rising premiums and the economy becomes more pronounced in 2014.

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The Virginia governor’s race was supposed to prove how the Tea Party destroyed the GOP. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli was supposed to be too extreme and too much of a right-winger to be competitive. McAuliffe, who had a double-digit lead as late as two weeks ago, was coasting to victory on the strength of the national disgust over the government shutdown that hit Northern Virginia with its large number of federal employees hard. But once the shutdown ended and the country began to take notice of the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, the dynamic in Virginia changed. While liberal pundits will probably be tying themselves in knots to discount the ObamaCare factor, there’s little question that Cuccinelli’s big comeback that wound up turning a rout into a narrow election was primarily due to the way the president’s signature health-care legislation changed the political mood of the nation. A website that didn’t work was one thing. But the last week, during which the president’s broken promises about keeping coverage were exposed (a problem made worse by the disingenuous spin by the president and his press spokesman), not only motivated more of the GOP base to turn out in Virginia but had to have lost Democrats some swing voters.

The real lessons from the Virginia vote turn out to be a lot more complicated than the simplistic idea that the Tea Party’s rise would lead to a permanent Democratic majority. The reason why Cuccinelli fell short in Virginia was due in part to the way the national party abandoned his cause and allowed him to be massively outspent. This is something angry Tea Partiers won’t forget. But they should also realize that the hole Cuccinelli was in two weeks ago was also due to the shutdown they had recklessly engineered. In the end, the two factors may have balanced each other out, leaving the real problem for the GOP the same one that sunk Mitt Romney there in 2012: changing demographics that have transformed a once red state into a purple or light blue one.

That factor will reassure Democrats that they are still the wave of the future. But rather than celebrate, they should be thinking about the way anger about ObamaCare can transform elections. Liberals may still be clinging to their belief that eventually the website will be fixed and everyone will love it. But the last week of anger about broken promises and dropped coverage should alert them to the likelihood that it will not only continue to be unpopular but will grow more so as its impact on rising premiums and the economy becomes more pronounced in 2014.

Anyone who thinks this won’t be a factor a year from now as control of the Senate hangs in the balance is not paying attention to the reality of a dysfunctional program and a White House still wrapped up in denial of the larger problem. The growing unpopularity of the president and ObamaCare complicate any Democratic plans for the midterms. Democrats had a huge financial and demographic advantage in Virginia as well as a divided GOP and a false flag Libertarian candidate that might have taken votes away from the Republicans. But they still only managed a narrow victory. That’s a result that ought to convince many in the GOP that 2014 may still be a good year for them.

As for Tea Partiers, they will be right to be angry about the way some in the GOP were ready to let Cuccinelli lose. But they need to take responsibility for their own role in his defeat. While the liberal media will continue to beat the drums for the Democrats’ talking point about the faux GOP war on women, the shutdown is what killed Cuccinelli. The Tea Party is not the kiss of death some on the left contend it is, but the suicidal tactics it has urged on the GOP are a real problem. Without it, the nation would have been focused on ObamaCare weeks earlier and might have given him more of a chance. A repeat of that tactic in the coming year—something that Ted Cruz and others won’t take off the table—would be exactly what the Democrats need to get the public’s minds off Obama’s lies.

In other words, both parties have much to learn from the results. The party that absorbs these lessons best will likely triumph 12 months from now.

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GOP Purge? A Tempest in a Tea Pot

The aftermath of the government shutdown has left the Republican Party badly divided. Some in the GOP are still wondering how they were suckered into letting Senator Ted Cruz and his supporters in the House shut down the government in a hopeless attempt to stop ObamaCare. But those who cheered the effort are not so much licking their wounds as they are licking their chops waiting for a chance to knock off some of the Senate Republicans who opposed Cruz’s rerun of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Though he is far from the only Republican to draw the ire of the Tea Party, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham seems to be at the top of their enemies list. Graham earned the ire of some on the right for his sponsorship of the bipartisan immigration reform bill, his support for U.S. military intervention in Libya and Syria, and his open opposition to Rand Paul’s isolationist demagoguery about drone attacks. But most of all he is despised for his occasional willingness to work with Democrats and even President Obama on certain issues. As such, their problems with him are, as with much of the motivations for the call for internal GOP bloodletting, more attitudinal than anything else. And while there is good reason for skepticism about the willingness of most conservatives to jettison such effective advocates like Mitch McConnell, there seems to be a consensus that if there is any Republican who will be forced to walk the plank by his party, it is Graham. However, two new polls show that the claims of Tea Partiers that Graham will be toast in 2014 may be empty boasts. If these numbers hold up, it may be fair to say that if Graham can survive in the ultra-conservative Palmetto State, it’s not clear that any so-called member of the GOP establishment need fear crossing Cruz.

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The aftermath of the government shutdown has left the Republican Party badly divided. Some in the GOP are still wondering how they were suckered into letting Senator Ted Cruz and his supporters in the House shut down the government in a hopeless attempt to stop ObamaCare. But those who cheered the effort are not so much licking their wounds as they are licking their chops waiting for a chance to knock off some of the Senate Republicans who opposed Cruz’s rerun of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Though he is far from the only Republican to draw the ire of the Tea Party, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham seems to be at the top of their enemies list. Graham earned the ire of some on the right for his sponsorship of the bipartisan immigration reform bill, his support for U.S. military intervention in Libya and Syria, and his open opposition to Rand Paul’s isolationist demagoguery about drone attacks. But most of all he is despised for his occasional willingness to work with Democrats and even President Obama on certain issues. As such, their problems with him are, as with much of the motivations for the call for internal GOP bloodletting, more attitudinal than anything else. And while there is good reason for skepticism about the willingness of most conservatives to jettison such effective advocates like Mitch McConnell, there seems to be a consensus that if there is any Republican who will be forced to walk the plank by his party, it is Graham. However, two new polls show that the claims of Tea Partiers that Graham will be toast in 2014 may be empty boasts. If these numbers hold up, it may be fair to say that if Graham can survive in the ultra-conservative Palmetto State, it’s not clear that any so-called member of the GOP establishment need fear crossing Cruz.

In the Winthrop University survey, Graham’s approval ratings were low, with 44.1 percent disapproving while only 39.7 in favor of his performance–though Republicans backed him 45.2 percent to 40.1 percent. Given that his approval ratings were in the 70s earlier in the year, that shows some real vulnerability. But when matched up against potential challengers, Graham doesn’t seem to have much to worry about.

These numbers were similar to the findings of a Harper/Conservative Intel poll about Graham’s approval ratings. But Harper also polled South Carolina Republicans about a possible primary matchup of Graham against his likely challengers and those results will give the senator’s critics little comfort. Graham leads the field of Republicans with 51 percent with his most formidable challengers, State Senator Lee Bright and Nancy Mace, trailing badly with 15 and 4 percent respectively. Graham also easily beats his most likely Democratic opponent in a general-election matchup 47 to 30 percent. None of this guarantees Graham reelection next year, as his challengers have plenty of time to raise more money and close the gap with the incumbent. But that gap is so large that their quest must still be termed a steep uphill climb at best.

What explains Graham’s seeming ability to hang on in one of the most conservative states in the union at a time when conservatives are calling for his blood? Well, one possible reason might be that even in South Carolina, the Tea Party is not as popular as some people assume it to be. The Winthrop poll showed that only 47 percent of Republicans had a positive view of it, a number that fell to only 28 percent when all South Carolinians are polled. It should also be noted that only ten percent of Republicans personally identify with the Tea Party.

That’s a stunning result in a state where, according to Harper, 69 percent of Republicans call themselves conservative. It also explains why the poll of Republicans about potential 2016 presidential candidates also showed that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was in first place, supported by 19 percent of South Carolinians while Cruz was in second with 17 percent, with the rest split among the various other GOP possibilities.

In other words, for all of Graham’s problems, he may not be in as much difficulty as his critics think. More to the point, South Carolina Republicans may not be marching to the beat of the Tea Party drummers calling for wholesale fratricide of GOP moderates in 2014. If it’s not going to happen there to Graham, that makes it difficult to argue that the calls for a Tea Party purge of “establishment” Republicans is anything more than a tempest in teapot.

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On Ike Skelton

Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.

Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.

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Want to know why there is so much partisan deadlock in Washington today? In part it’s because of the rise of a radical Tea Party wing of the Republican Party which is interested in grandstanding, not legislating. But it’s also due to the demise of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party as represented by the likes of Ike Skelton, a Missouri congressman who served 17 terms in the House and has just died.

Skelton represented the area where Harry Truman came from and he often voted like Truman. He was one of the most pro-defense members of Congress–and one of the most knowledgeable experts on military issues. A longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, he capped his service as its chairman. He made his primary impact not by grandstanding for the cameras but by working quietly behind the scenes to bolster the armed forces. He had a particular passion for enhancing military education and he put in place schooling requirements which remain in effect to this day.

His views allowed him to hold office even as his district turned more conservative. But his luck finally ran out in 2010 when he was beaten by a Republican challenger. Two other conservative Democrats–John Spratt of South Carolina and Gene Taylor of Mississippi–lost in the same year.  

Races such as those enabled Republicans to recapture control of the House in 2010. But it’s not your father’s Republican Party anymore. The Tea Party wing is now in effective control in the House–i.e., if not actually able to pass its priorities, it is able to block anyone else’s most of the time. The Tea Party Caucus formally numbers 46 House members but its influence is larger. On the other side of the spectrum are equally ideological members of the Progressive Caucus which now numbers 68 members.  

Unfortunately there are too few Ike Skeltons left. Congress and the country are the poorer for it.

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Cruz’s Critics Aren’t Just GOP Establishment

Senator Ted Cruz is the darling of the Republican base these days. Though most observers on both sides of the aisle consider the government shutdown he helped engineer to have been a disaster for his party, many conservatives love the fact that he was willing to fight the president and the Democrats to the last ditch on ObamaCare. Some even believe his claim that had everyone in the GOP drunk the Kool-Aid he was handing out in the Capitol, the tactic would have succeeded even if there is no rational reason to think so. More importantly, many think that any Republican who warned that the shutdown was a dumb tactic without a chance of success is a RINO traitor and part of the problem in Washington to which the Texas freshman is the only solution.

This Cruz-inspired schism seems to be the main topic for discussion about the Republican Party these days, and made the Texan’s visit to Iowa this past weekend to give a speech a matter of more than passing political interest. His appearance in the first-in-the-nation caucus state highlighted the traction he has gained among Tea Partiers, and Cruz continued to milk it with barbed comments that were aimed just as much at less militant Republicans than they were at Obama and the Democrats. But when Rick Santorum called out Cruz on Meet the Press for hurting the party more than he helped it with the shutdown, it’s time to admit there is more going on in the GOP right now than a simple split between the Tea Party and the so-called party establishment.

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Senator Ted Cruz is the darling of the Republican base these days. Though most observers on both sides of the aisle consider the government shutdown he helped engineer to have been a disaster for his party, many conservatives love the fact that he was willing to fight the president and the Democrats to the last ditch on ObamaCare. Some even believe his claim that had everyone in the GOP drunk the Kool-Aid he was handing out in the Capitol, the tactic would have succeeded even if there is no rational reason to think so. More importantly, many think that any Republican who warned that the shutdown was a dumb tactic without a chance of success is a RINO traitor and part of the problem in Washington to which the Texas freshman is the only solution.

This Cruz-inspired schism seems to be the main topic for discussion about the Republican Party these days, and made the Texan’s visit to Iowa this past weekend to give a speech a matter of more than passing political interest. His appearance in the first-in-the-nation caucus state highlighted the traction he has gained among Tea Partiers, and Cruz continued to milk it with barbed comments that were aimed just as much at less militant Republicans than they were at Obama and the Democrats. But when Rick Santorum called out Cruz on Meet the Press for hurting the party more than he helped it with the shutdown, it’s time to admit there is more going on in the GOP right now than a simple split between the Tea Party and the so-called party establishment.

Just a year and a half ago Santorum was leading the opposition to the establishment in the Republican presidential primaries. Though he failed to stop the Mitt Romney juggernaut, the long-shot candidate won Iowa and several other primaries and caucuses on his way to being the runner-up in the GOP race. Santorum clearly hopes to try again in 2016 and that explains, at least in part, his willingness to criticize a potential opponent like Cruz.

But in doing so, he illustrated that there are more than just two factions within the GOP. Cruz may be the leading spokesman for the Tea Party critique of Washington Republicans’ inability to defeat ObamaCare and the rest of the liberal project. But Santorum’s ability to tap into working-class resentments of a party that seems at times to be dominated by big business as well as his ability to speak for social conservatives should remind us that there are elements in the party outside of Capitol Hill or K Street that are not solely motivated by Cruz’s concerns about small government.

Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between Santorum’s core constituency and those who are attracted to Cruz. The same can also be said of many of the Republicans who supposedly fall into the category of establishment supporters because of their disdain for the shutdown strategy. Almost all Republicans these days want smaller government and oppose ObamaCare. But it needs to be understood that many of those who were appalled at the party’s embrace of a big-business establishment-type figure like Romney are not necessarily going to jump on Cruz’s bandwagon or accept his single-minded tactics that brand anyone who isn’t ready to follow him into every fight, no matter how quixotic, as a closet liberal.

Santorum’s dogged social conservatism seems the antithesis of the belief of a RINO, but even he understood that the gap between what he conceded was Cruz’s “laudable” goal of eliminating ObamaCare and a coherent plan to accomplish it was huge.

Moreover, Santorum reminded Republicans that the notion that Cruz is the face of the Republican Party today is laughable.

Unlike the Democratic Party, which has the president, there isn’t a leader in the Republican Party right now. That’s part of the reason for the mess and the confusion in the party. But that’s always the way it is with a party out of power. You have lots of different faces and those faces, as we’ve seen, they come and they go.

Santorum is hoping that his time as a leading Republican isn’t in the past tense, but we won’t know that for sure until we see whether his brand of religious conservatism can hold its own against that of Cruz, Rand Paul, or even Marco Rubio or Chris Christie. But while the latter may be the stand-in for Romney for GOP voters, the others will be battling each other for a share of the conservative vote.

The point here is not that Santorum or any of the other potential candidates can beat Cruz. Rather, the point to be gleaned from this exchange is that for all of Cruz’s recent notoriety, he is just one man in a party full of potential presidents with a variety of conservative constituencies rather than a mere standoff between Cruz’s rebels and the establishment. Those who think the only real story about the Republicans in the coming years is whether Cruz will lead a successful purge of all who opposed him are missing that.

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Can John McCain Win a GOP Primary?

The aftermath of the government shutdown hasn’t done much to cool the tempers of Republicans angered by their humiliating defeat at the hands of President Obama. Rather than accept responsibility for the failure of the no-win strategy they steered their party into, Tea Partiers are venting their frustration at the so-called establishment and vowing to try to defeat all those who don’t meet their standards for conservative purity even if that means dooming any hopes for the GOP to retake the Senate. Front and center on the list of the Republicans on their hit list is, of course, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Which is why his announcement earlier this week that he is seriously considering running for a sixth term in the Senate isn’t so much an indication of his desire to hold his seat as it is his throwing down of a gauntlet to a faction of his party that he hasn’t hesitated to describe as “wacko birds.”

It’s not likely that there is a Democrat in the state that has much of a chance to beat McCain either in 2016 when he will be 80 or even six years after that should he wish to keep going. But despite his general popularity, it is an open question as to whether McCain can win another Republican primary. Which means that if he does want another term, Arizona looks to be ground zero in an all-out war between a man who has become the quintessential GOP moderate and Tea Partiers who regard him as the incarnation of everything they dislike about “moderates.”

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The aftermath of the government shutdown hasn’t done much to cool the tempers of Republicans angered by their humiliating defeat at the hands of President Obama. Rather than accept responsibility for the failure of the no-win strategy they steered their party into, Tea Partiers are venting their frustration at the so-called establishment and vowing to try to defeat all those who don’t meet their standards for conservative purity even if that means dooming any hopes for the GOP to retake the Senate. Front and center on the list of the Republicans on their hit list is, of course, Senator John McCain of Arizona. Which is why his announcement earlier this week that he is seriously considering running for a sixth term in the Senate isn’t so much an indication of his desire to hold his seat as it is his throwing down of a gauntlet to a faction of his party that he hasn’t hesitated to describe as “wacko birds.”

It’s not likely that there is a Democrat in the state that has much of a chance to beat McCain either in 2016 when he will be 80 or even six years after that should he wish to keep going. But despite his general popularity, it is an open question as to whether McCain can win another Republican primary. Which means that if he does want another term, Arizona looks to be ground zero in an all-out war between a man who has become the quintessential GOP moderate and Tea Partiers who regard him as the incarnation of everything they dislike about “moderates.”

It should be recalled that the last time he faced the voters, McCain had to tack considerably to the right in order to win another term. After long being identified as a supporter of immigration reform and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, McCain sang a slightly different tune in 2010, memorably demanding that the government build a wall along the border with Mexico. The shift, combined with a weaker than expected challenge from former congressman and talk show host J.D. Hayworth, worked nicely and the veteran senator won his primary in a walk and coasted to victory in the general election. But it isn’t likely that he can play the same game again or that he would even want to.

After antagonizing right-wingers by being the leading Republican sponsor of the bipartisan immigration reform bill passed by the Senate (though it will die in the House), McCain’s open contempt for Rand Paul’s filibuster about drone attacks, and his even greater disdain for those like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, who urged Republicans to threaten a government shutdown to de-fund ObamaCare, his relations with the Tea Party can best be described as open warfare.

With the core of the party tilting further to the right there are those who assume there’s no way that McCain could survive a primary. After having antagonized conservatives on issues like campaign finance reform for decades, the dispute over the shutdown may be the final straw. Should a credible conservative, or at least one more credible than the likes of Hayworth, emerge against him, McCain will be in for the political fight of his life. Given his penchant for reaching across the aisle and an internationalist attitude on foreign policy that seems out of touch with many on the right these days, McCain is now routinely described by even as normally sober a politician as Liz Cheney as a “liberal Republican.” Though the label is more than a bit unfair, it means he will have a hard time winning a primary in such a conservative state.

That said, those who are inclined to write McCain’s reelection off as a lost cause should understand that the rules have always been slightly different for McCain. As a bona fide legendary war hero, McCain’s career has always been based as much on biography as it has a willingness to stick to conservative positions. Five years of torture in the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War earned McCain a lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card as far as many Republicans have been concerned.

It should also be said that branding McCain as “liberal” is a bit of a misnomer. On most issues of concern to conservatives, McCain is with the base of his party. Indeed, the desire of many on the right to exact revenge on him over the perception that he betrayed them on the shutdown is undermined by the fact that, as he said this week, he fought the adoption of the president’s health-care program tooth and nail before Cruz and Lee were even elected to the Senate.

Though there are issues on which he has disagreed with many Republicans, his image as a moderate is based as much on his negative views of Cruz and company and a desire to work with Democrats as much as possible. As such, no shift to the right on any issue such as immigration will win over his conservative critics the way it did in 2010. If he is to win another term, it will have to be by proving that a centrist, or what passes for one in the GOP these days, can still win a primary in a red state. That’s the sort of a challenge the always-combative McCain may relish. Indeed, given the fact that he has talked about retirement, a desire to smack down the Tea Partiers might be the only reason he is thinking about running again. But it flies in the face of everything we know about the changing face of the base of the Republican Party. While it is always a mistake to underestimate the Navy veteran turned Washington institution, the odds against him sitting in the Senate in 2017 are very long.

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What’s Good for Cruz May Be Bad for GOP

The national media appears to be shocked at the hero’s welcome Senator Ted Cruz got when he returned home to Texas this past weekend. They are equally mystified at the applause the Tea Party favorite gets when he hits the road to speak in places like Iowa, a crucial state for those with presidential ambitions, where he will headline a GOP event this Friday. Though the government shutdown he helped engineer has crashed Republican Party poll numbers, Cruz appears to be living a charmed life lately as his attempt to blame the failure of his idea on less dogmatic Republicans is playing very well among the members of his Tea Party base. Where someone else might take this moment to engage in some introspection about what went wrong, Cruz has stayed on the offensive, and that’s exactly what his fans want. Which means that although chances of Republican success in 2014 seem to have diminished, Cruz’s stock is going up. And that is something that ought to scare not only mainstream Republicans who remain appalled at his ability to maneuver the GOP into a destructive shutdown but also fellow conservatives who are thinking about running for president.

Cruz may be reviled by the rest of the Senate Republican caucus, despised by the national media and even has been subjected to criticism by conservative pundits who rightly flayed him for a performance that did not achieve its stated aims and hurt his party. But it would be a mistake to confuse the bad reviews he has gotten for his role in the shutdown with an accurate reading of his influence or his chances in 2016. A few months ago, he was just an obnoxious freshman whose refusal to play by the Senate rules had given him a following on the right. Today, it must be acknowledged that the shutdown has made him a genuine power in the Republican Party who could well be heading into 2016 with a considerable edge over other conservatives.

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The national media appears to be shocked at the hero’s welcome Senator Ted Cruz got when he returned home to Texas this past weekend. They are equally mystified at the applause the Tea Party favorite gets when he hits the road to speak in places like Iowa, a crucial state for those with presidential ambitions, where he will headline a GOP event this Friday. Though the government shutdown he helped engineer has crashed Republican Party poll numbers, Cruz appears to be living a charmed life lately as his attempt to blame the failure of his idea on less dogmatic Republicans is playing very well among the members of his Tea Party base. Where someone else might take this moment to engage in some introspection about what went wrong, Cruz has stayed on the offensive, and that’s exactly what his fans want. Which means that although chances of Republican success in 2014 seem to have diminished, Cruz’s stock is going up. And that is something that ought to scare not only mainstream Republicans who remain appalled at his ability to maneuver the GOP into a destructive shutdown but also fellow conservatives who are thinking about running for president.

Cruz may be reviled by the rest of the Senate Republican caucus, despised by the national media and even has been subjected to criticism by conservative pundits who rightly flayed him for a performance that did not achieve its stated aims and hurt his party. But it would be a mistake to confuse the bad reviews he has gotten for his role in the shutdown with an accurate reading of his influence or his chances in 2016. A few months ago, he was just an obnoxious freshman whose refusal to play by the Senate rules had given him a following on the right. Today, it must be acknowledged that the shutdown has made him a genuine power in the Republican Party who could well be heading into 2016 with a considerable edge over other conservatives.

The disconnect between the way Cruz’s antics have played with the Tea Party and the perception of his conduct among the rest of the electorate, not to mention the Republican leaders, shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cruz was sent to the Senate by Texans to shake up the Senate and to oppose the increase in debt and the growth in federal power that ObamaCare symbolizes. Throughout his 10 months in office, he has consistently played to the crowd outside of Washington that isn’t interested in how laws get passed or the way politicians get things done in the Capitol. When Cruz tells the GOP base that President Obama and the Democrats would have cracked and given in on ObamaCare if only more Republicans had backed him, they believe it even if it flies in the face of common sense.

But while party leaders vow they won’t get pressured by Cruz and his friends in the House Tea Party caucus into another shutdown fiasco (as Senator Mitch McConnell keeps saying, the second kick of the mule to your head has no educational value), sticking to his rhetorical guns only makes the Texan more popular among those on the right who want no accommodation or compromise with Democrats even if it means a shutdown or a debt default.

The national polling numbers for Republicans as well as those in the generic congressional vote are getting to the point where the shutdown may have made some heretofore-safe GOP House seats competitive and some competitive races safe for the Democrats. The Republicans’ chances of taking back the Senate next year must also be deemed as having moved from even to a long shot. A year is a long time in politics. The ObamaCare rollout disaster and the president’s tin-eared refusal to adequately explain this problem may start the process of reversing the effects of the shutdown and make 2014 a good year for Republicans after all. But it is also possible that the idea that the GOP is run by a pack of extremists led by Cruz that is relentlessly pushed by the liberal mainstream media will take hold in the public imagination to the point where it can’t be reversed. Cruz’s increased notoriety may help depress the value of the GOP brand nationally to the point where the party may be in bigger trouble than anyone thinks.

But even if this worst-case scenario plays out for Republicans, don’t expect this to diminish Cruz’s hold on many conservatives. Indeed, by standing out in this manner and being willing to fight no matter how hopeless the struggle, he may have already become a conservative folk hero and leapfrogged over others who were hoping to run in 2016.

Cruz is a particular threat to Senator Rand Paul. Paul appeared to have expanded the libertarian base he inherited from his father into a faction that was big enough to fuel an effective challenge for the 2016 Republican nomination. But right now, Cruz’s anti-ObamaCare suicide charge appears to have supplanted Paul in the hearts of grassroots conservatives whose enmity for Obama and big government is boundless. Nor should other potential candidates like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum assume that Cruz couldn’t threaten their support among religious conservatives.

To note Cruz’s popularity on the right is not to assume that he is the inevitable 2012 GOP nominee. More mainstream candidates with better chances in a general election like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie or even Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may be able to either win without competing for right-wing voters or transcend Cruz’s appeal.

But no one should underestimate Cruz at this point. Right now it looks like Cruz’s popularity on the right seems to have an inverse relationship to his party’s falling stock. If this trend continues, the GOP looks to be in big trouble next year and in 2016 even as Cruz becomes a credible threat to win his party’s presidential nomination. You don’t have to be a deep thinker about Washington politics or even much of a cynic to realize that perhaps this was the point of much of what we’ve just gone through.

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Tea Party Despair and ObamaCare

Despair is a contagion that can kill a political movement. As Pete Wehner brilliantly noted here earlier today in his piece about the Tea Party mindset, the apocalyptic view of the ObamaCare defunding fight has led many conservatives to take an all-or-nothing position that sees greater value in going down fighting for a lost cause than continuing the patient, incremental struggle toward eventual victory. Since they see nothing but darkness ahead, treating the debate about how to combat the liberal agenda has become one in which anyone who preaches compromise on any point or even patience is a traitor. As George Will admirably put in his column in Friday’s Washington Post, the Tea Partiers seem to have something in common with their foe President Obama: a disdain for politics that respects the intent of the Framers to restrain factions via divided government with checks and balances. James Madison would view Obama’s notion of imposing his views on Congress and the nation with horror. But he would have had the same reaction to the notion that the House of Representatives could do the same to the Senate and the executive branch.

That’s the ideological framework for the disagreement between the Tea Party and those on the right who believe they are in danger of crashing the Republican Party and the chances of conservatives stopping Obama’s agenda in the long run. Yet the tactical mistake they are making isn’t that ObamaCare is bad. They are right about that. Where they are wrong is the assumption that losing today’s fight about health care means an inevitable descent into socialized medicine and the ultimate death of American freedom. In fact, the implementation of ObamaCare over the coming months and years is not the end of the battle. And that is why Tea Partiers need not only to stop trying to shoot their allies but to keep their power dry for the coming rounds of combat over the issue that will be just as, if not more important than the fight that just ended.

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Despair is a contagion that can kill a political movement. As Pete Wehner brilliantly noted here earlier today in his piece about the Tea Party mindset, the apocalyptic view of the ObamaCare defunding fight has led many conservatives to take an all-or-nothing position that sees greater value in going down fighting for a lost cause than continuing the patient, incremental struggle toward eventual victory. Since they see nothing but darkness ahead, treating the debate about how to combat the liberal agenda has become one in which anyone who preaches compromise on any point or even patience is a traitor. As George Will admirably put in his column in Friday’s Washington Post, the Tea Partiers seem to have something in common with their foe President Obama: a disdain for politics that respects the intent of the Framers to restrain factions via divided government with checks and balances. James Madison would view Obama’s notion of imposing his views on Congress and the nation with horror. But he would have had the same reaction to the notion that the House of Representatives could do the same to the Senate and the executive branch.

That’s the ideological framework for the disagreement between the Tea Party and those on the right who believe they are in danger of crashing the Republican Party and the chances of conservatives stopping Obama’s agenda in the long run. Yet the tactical mistake they are making isn’t that ObamaCare is bad. They are right about that. Where they are wrong is the assumption that losing today’s fight about health care means an inevitable descent into socialized medicine and the ultimate death of American freedom. In fact, the implementation of ObamaCare over the coming months and years is not the end of the battle. And that is why Tea Partiers need not only to stop trying to shoot their allies but to keep their power dry for the coming rounds of combat over the issue that will be just as, if not more important than the fight that just ended.

It should be remembered that as bad as ObamaCare is, it was actually a hybrid plan based on something that was promoted in the 1990s by, of all places, the Heritage Foundation, as a way to get more people covered by insurance without creating a socialized medicine scheme. It was mistake but it was also the inspiration for Massachusetts’ foray into the same topic under Mitt Romney a few years later. To note this is not to defend the concept (which I continue to oppose) or to mock the good people at Heritage who have now changed their minds about the idea (everyone’s entitled to a mistake and to change their mind). Rather it is to point out that for liberals, ObamaCare was a foot in the door rather than an end in of itself. Their goal remains a single-payer system. ObamaCare will raise health care costs rather than lower them, take away choices from Americans as well as many of their jobs and hurt the economy. But it is just the first step toward measures that will truly be a step away from freedom that conservatives fear. As such, the real battle for liberty is the one that is ahead of us, not the one just concluded.

In the coming years, conservatives must be ready to do two things.

One is to hold the Democrats accountable for the failures and the costs of the scheme they shoved down the throats of the American people on a partisan vote in 2010. The problem with the so-called Affordable Care Act is not just a bunch of computer glitches. It is a structural monstrosity whose ill-considered features will continue to be exacerbated by governmental incompetence. Instead of assuming that once in place it cannot be revoked — the conceit that is at the heart of liberal confidence about their ability to prevail in coming debates — they should have more confidence in the American people. If conservatives truly believe that it is a bad idea and will hurt the country, then they shouldn’t take it for granted that Americans will not have the sense to get rid of it after it has proved a failure.

Second, they must prepare for the next round of political combat on the issue that will not be merely more attempts to repeal ObamaCare but the inevitable effort from the left to expand it toward the single payer model that they really want. That is especially true since liberals will dishonestly blame ObamaCare’s failures on it being a halfway measure rather than on the faults at the heart of the concept.

Doing so successfully will involve not only providing reasonable arguments against the leftist agenda but coming up with alternatives that will create a safety net for those not covered by insurance but who really need it. Above all, it will require a functioning political force that is able to work within the Madisonian construct rather than a band of zealots on a glorious if ultimately unsuccessful kamikaze mission. If conservatives spend the next year attempting to purge their ranks of those who didn’t ride along enthusiastically on Ted Cruz’s charge of the Light Brigade, they will be ensuring that the Republican Party won’t be able to stop the liberal’s next move.

History did not end this past week. Nor did the conservative movement. In many ways, the real challenge for conservatives isn’t just stopping ObamaCare but, as I wrote last month in an essay for the Intercollegiate Review, rescuing the cause of freedom from despair. The struggle to defend the Constitution they care so much about depends on them dropping their pessimism, resuming the obligation to pursue Madisonian political compromise and taking heart for the struggles that are ahead of them.

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The Tea Party Mindset

It’s an interesting place in which I find myself. I share the Tea Party’s concerns about the Affordable Care Act and, more broadly, the threats posed by the increasing size, scope and reach of the federal government. I recognize the important role the populist movement played in the 2010 mid-term elections. And I wrote the other day that it’s important for there to be bridges built between the so-called conservative establishment and the Tea Party. Even still, I’ve found myself increasingly out of step with the Tea Party, for reasons that William Galston crystallized in his recent Wall Street Journal column.

Professor Galston, in writing about the Tea Party, relied on focus groups conducted by Stan Greenberg. As Galston reports

Supporters of the tea party, [Greenberg] finds, see President Obama as anti-Christian, and the president’s expansive use of executive authority evokes charges of “tyranny.” … ObamaCare is the tipping point, the tea party believes. Unless the law is defunded, the land of limited government, individual liberty and personal responsibility will be gone forever, and the new America, dominated by dependent minorities who assert their “rights” without accepting their responsibilities, will have no place for people like them.

For the tea party, ObamaCare is much more than a policy dispute; it is an existential struggle.

This analysis of the underlying attitudes of the Tea Party strikes me as basically right, based on my observations of the Tea Party and my own conversations and e-mail exchanges with friends and supporters of the Tea Party, during which I’ve both pushed back against their arguments and tried to understand their point of view.

My sense is they believe that America is at an inflection point. That we are about to enter into the land of no return. That demographic trends are all troubling and that the “takers” in America will soon outnumber the “givers.” That for many decades (or more) we’ve seen a “one-way ratchet toward ever bigger government.” And that a majority of Americans will become hooked on the Affordable Care Act like an addict to cocaine.

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It’s an interesting place in which I find myself. I share the Tea Party’s concerns about the Affordable Care Act and, more broadly, the threats posed by the increasing size, scope and reach of the federal government. I recognize the important role the populist movement played in the 2010 mid-term elections. And I wrote the other day that it’s important for there to be bridges built between the so-called conservative establishment and the Tea Party. Even still, I’ve found myself increasingly out of step with the Tea Party, for reasons that William Galston crystallized in his recent Wall Street Journal column.

Professor Galston, in writing about the Tea Party, relied on focus groups conducted by Stan Greenberg. As Galston reports

Supporters of the tea party, [Greenberg] finds, see President Obama as anti-Christian, and the president’s expansive use of executive authority evokes charges of “tyranny.” … ObamaCare is the tipping point, the tea party believes. Unless the law is defunded, the land of limited government, individual liberty and personal responsibility will be gone forever, and the new America, dominated by dependent minorities who assert their “rights” without accepting their responsibilities, will have no place for people like them.

For the tea party, ObamaCare is much more than a policy dispute; it is an existential struggle.

This analysis of the underlying attitudes of the Tea Party strikes me as basically right, based on my observations of the Tea Party and my own conversations and e-mail exchanges with friends and supporters of the Tea Party, during which I’ve both pushed back against their arguments and tried to understand their point of view.

My sense is they believe that America is at an inflection point. That we are about to enter into the land of no return. That demographic trends are all troubling and that the “takers” in America will soon outnumber the “givers.” That for many decades (or more) we’ve seen a “one-way ratchet toward ever bigger government.” And that a majority of Americans will become hooked on the Affordable Care Act like an addict to cocaine.

Assume this is, more or less, your mindset. If you love your country and believe it is engaged in an existential struggle, and about to lose – if tyranny is just around the corner — it might well create in you feelings of anxiousness, desperation, and aggression. And that can lead people to engage in battles you might not win because failure to fight will consign America to ruin. It is now or never.

You therefore end up supporting someone like Senator Ted Cruz, who promises to be conservatism’s 21st century Horatius at the Bridge – in this case leading a quixotic effort to force Senate Democrats, and President Obama himself, to defund his signature domestic achievement. And even if this gambit fails and damages your party and helps the very forces you oppose, so be it. There is glory in having waged the fight, even (and maybe especially) a losing fight.

In addition, this outlook creates rising anger at those whom Tea Partiers and their supporters thought were allies but in fact don’t really see the true nature of this apocalyptic struggle. They are part of the “establishment” – seen as passive, compliant, afraid, members of the “surrender caucus.” Going along to get along. Lusting for the approval of the (liberal) Georgetown cocktail set. Angling to appear on Morning Joe. Even, in a way, traitors to the cause. Which means there’s a need for a mass cleansing, the purification of a movement that can only come about by an auto-da-fe – directed even against those who agree with you on almost every policy matter. And so rock-ribbed conservatives like Senator Tom Coburn and Representative Pete Sessions are considered RINOs.

This is not, from my vantage point, a particularly healthy approach to politics or one moored to reality. You can believe, as I do, that President Obama is doing great harm to America, that his agenda is having an enervating effect and that we face deep and serious challenges.

But some perspective is also in order. We are actually not on the verge of collapse and ruin. This period is not comparable to the Great Depression or the period leading up to the Civil War or the collapse of Ancient Rome. And tyranny is not just around the corner.

This is, rather, a difficult time in some important respects – one that requires sobriety and wisdom, public officials of courage and good judgment who are willing to act boldly but not recklessly. The truth is that our afflictions are not beyond our ability to address them, that our society is a complicated mosaic that eludes simple, sweeping characterizations, and America’s capacity for self-renewal is quite extraordinary.

Beyond that is the importance of understanding that the life of a nation, like the life of an individual, includes ebbs and flows; that almost every generation feels as though the problems it faces are among the worst any generation has ever faced; and that setbacks are inevitable and that progress is often incremental.

A final thought: There is no question that a great deal of repair work needs to be done. But the growing sense among some on the right that a curtain of darkness is descending on America is both unwarranted and can lead people to act in ways that are self-destructive.

Without understating our challenges for a moment, I rather hope a figure will emerge from within the conservative ranks who is not only principled but also winsome, who possesses an open and flexible mind and has not learned the art of being discontent. A person who doesn’t find fulfillment in amplifying anxiety and anger. Who doesn’t dwell in the lowlands because he’s too busy aiming for the uplands. And who knows that this fallen world is not a world without hope.

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Who Lost the Shutdown Matters

Most of the nation is just glad it’s over. The government shutdown and the related debt ceiling showdown was widely seen as a symptom of political dysfunction that hurt the country and led to declining favorability ratings for everyone involved though Republicans suffered more in that respect than President Obama and the Democrats. Now that it’s finished, most of us may still not think highly of the government but the standoff illustrated that even a conservative-leaning country does not like the idea of things falling apart. We may not want things to go back to business as usual in Washington but neither are we enamored of the notion of letting it fall apart. Americans are understandably tired of the debate about what led to the shutdown and moving on to the next big thing or crisis. But Republicans are still arguing about just what happened. And that is a good thing.

 The GOP can’t just move on, as Bill Clinton’s supporters used to say about his misdeeds, in the wake of the shutdown. It must assess what just happened and sort out who was right and who was wrong. Doing so isn’t merely sour grapes or recriminations. It’s a necessary post-mortem on a disaster that must be conducted. That’s why it’s vital that the accusations that the Republicans’ humiliating surrender to President Obama was somehow the fault of those who were skeptical of the shutdown tactic is so pernicious. If the lesson that many in the GOP base draw from these events is that they need to listen and obey Senator Ted Cruz, they are not only fated to undergo more such catastrophes in the future; they are ensuring that the Democrats will be running Washington for the foreseeable future.

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Most of the nation is just glad it’s over. The government shutdown and the related debt ceiling showdown was widely seen as a symptom of political dysfunction that hurt the country and led to declining favorability ratings for everyone involved though Republicans suffered more in that respect than President Obama and the Democrats. Now that it’s finished, most of us may still not think highly of the government but the standoff illustrated that even a conservative-leaning country does not like the idea of things falling apart. We may not want things to go back to business as usual in Washington but neither are we enamored of the notion of letting it fall apart. Americans are understandably tired of the debate about what led to the shutdown and moving on to the next big thing or crisis. But Republicans are still arguing about just what happened. And that is a good thing.

 The GOP can’t just move on, as Bill Clinton’s supporters used to say about his misdeeds, in the wake of the shutdown. It must assess what just happened and sort out who was right and who was wrong. Doing so isn’t merely sour grapes or recriminations. It’s a necessary post-mortem on a disaster that must be conducted. That’s why it’s vital that the accusations that the Republicans’ humiliating surrender to President Obama was somehow the fault of those who were skeptical of the shutdown tactic is so pernicious. If the lesson that many in the GOP base draw from these events is that they need to listen and obey Senator Ted Cruz, they are not only fated to undergo more such catastrophes in the future; they are ensuring that the Democrats will be running Washington for the foreseeable future.

Let me restate, as I have done many times, that I think there is much that is admirable about Cruz as well as the Tea Party movement in general. His resistance to business as usual on Capitol Hill is refreshing and needed. Conservatives should be pleased about the fact that there is a core group of Republicans in the House and the Senate that understands that the power of government must limited and that the GOP should not be co-opted in order to assist the implementation of President Obama’s plans to expand it. The days of Republican leaders operating as, in Newt Gingrich’s memorable takedown of Bob Dole, “the tax collector for the welfare state” should be over. Moreover, ObamaCare deserved to be defunded. Indeed, it must continue to be opposed wherever possible, especially as its disastrous rollout makes clear just how much of a boondoggle this vast expansion of government truly is.

But there is a difference between principled conservatism and destructive zealotry. The willingness of Cruz to cynically call conservatives to arms this fall on behalf of a strategy that never had a prayer of success calls into question his judgment. Republicans cannot run the government with only control of the House of Representatives. The attempt to defund ObamaCare could not succeed and Cruz knew it. The fact that President Obama had been daring, even begging the GOP to try it, should have tipped off the conservative base that not only could it not work, but that it would materially damage their cause. And, to one’s great surprise (including Cruz), that’s exactly what happened.

But in the aftermath of the disaster, Cruz and some of the conservative talking heads on radio and TV who urged Republicans to go down this path are not taking responsibility for their mistake. Instead, they are blaming the surrender on other conservatives, especially Senate Republicans, for not blindly following Cruz. Others even insist that the GOP should have continued to hold out in the hope that the Democrats would crack, even if that meant extending the shutdown and even brushing up against the danger of a default.

To put it mildly, this is bunk.

Yes, there were plenty of Republican senators that warned that the tactic couldn’t work and urged the House GOP caucus not to try it. And they continued to call for compromise and demand that President Obama negotiate with the Republicans to end the standoff. But to assert, as Cruz and some Tea Partiers do, that it was this factor that enabled Obama to prevail is worse than instant revisionist history; it is an exercise in the sort of magical thinking that conservatives have always associated more with utopian liberals and Marxists than their own movement.

Even if no Republican had dared to mention that Emperor Cruz wasn’t wearing any clothes that wouldn’t have made President Obama any more willing to bend to the GOP’s will. He had no reason to do so since the longer the shutdown and the closer to default the nation got, the more blame his opponents would get for the disagreement.

Yes, part of this is a function of the liberal bias of the mainstream media. Life, especially for conservatives in Washington, is unfair. But it is difficult to blame even a biased media for the fact that some conservatives were willing to play Russian roulette with the economy, even if their motivation was a good cause like stopping ObamaCare.

So long as the Democrats control the White House and the Senate, ObamaCare can’t be repealed or defunded. That is frustrating for conservatives but that’s the price you pay for losing elections in a democracy. That doesn’t mean they must simply accept that ObamaCare is “the law of the land” and shut up. But it does mean they can’t overturn it even if they all held their breath until they turned blue on the steps of the Capitol. Understanding this doesn’t make one a liberal or a RINO or any of the other insults hurled at conservatives who criticize Cruz by his adherents. It just means you are a conservative who lives in the real world rather than the fantasy Washington in which some on the right prefer to dwell.

The “blame the establishment” meme we are hearing this week has little to do with a genuine belief that the efforts of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to craft a deal that ended this nightmare was the difference between victory or defeat. What is about is an effort on the part of Cruz and his crew to craft a myth about the shutdown that will enable them to evade blame for their mistake.

If conservatives listen to them and go out and spend the next year attempting to take down McConnell and other conservatives in Senate primaries, it will increase Cruz’s influence in the party. But it won’t give him more power in the Senate since success for some of the Tea Party alternatives in those primaries will mean, as it did in 2010 and 2012, that the Republicans will blow another chance to take back the Senate.

Having taken the party over the cliff in the shutdown, Cruz and friends seek to repeat the exercise in the future and that is why they are still doing their best to abuse those who knew better all along. If Republicans let them, they’ll have no one but themselves to blame for what follows.

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Tea Party v. Establishment — What’s Next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll know soon enough.

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Playing the Racism Card in the Shutdown

 The government shutdown has brought out the worst in our political class but the same is true of pundits. It’s bad enough when politicians call each other terrorists and hostage takers or, as Barbara Boxer did yesterday, to compare them to those who commit domestic abuse. We know that’s what Democrats have always thought of Republicans and it takes very little provocation to get them up on their high horses seeking to turn a political disagreement, however bitter it might be, into one in which the other side is depicted as pure scum rather than merely wrong. But the willingness of liberals to speak as if all those who disagree with Barack Obama are, almost by definition, racists, is about as low as it gets.

The attempt to paint the Tea Party as a warmed over version of the Ku Klux Klan has been a staple of liberal commentary for over three years. The fact that race has played virtually no part in the argument about the stimulus, ObamaCare and the current shutdown/debt ceiling crisis doesn’t deter the left from branding its foes as motivated by prejudice rather than just by different views about which decent people can disagree. That’s the conceit of much of Roger Simon’s column in Politico yesterday. Jonah Goldberg rightly called it “fairly trollish” and used it as an example of how formerly respected reporters turned columnists expose the liberal bias of much of the mainstream press in an excellent post on National Review’s The Corner blog. I made a similar point in a piece about a related topic on Sunday. But Simon’s piece exposes a different angle of the bias issue that I’d like to explore further.

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 The government shutdown has brought out the worst in our political class but the same is true of pundits. It’s bad enough when politicians call each other terrorists and hostage takers or, as Barbara Boxer did yesterday, to compare them to those who commit domestic abuse. We know that’s what Democrats have always thought of Republicans and it takes very little provocation to get them up on their high horses seeking to turn a political disagreement, however bitter it might be, into one in which the other side is depicted as pure scum rather than merely wrong. But the willingness of liberals to speak as if all those who disagree with Barack Obama are, almost by definition, racists, is about as low as it gets.

The attempt to paint the Tea Party as a warmed over version of the Ku Klux Klan has been a staple of liberal commentary for over three years. The fact that race has played virtually no part in the argument about the stimulus, ObamaCare and the current shutdown/debt ceiling crisis doesn’t deter the left from branding its foes as motivated by prejudice rather than just by different views about which decent people can disagree. That’s the conceit of much of Roger Simon’s column in Politico yesterday. Jonah Goldberg rightly called it “fairly trollish” and used it as an example of how formerly respected reporters turned columnists expose the liberal bias of much of the mainstream press in an excellent post on National Review’s The Corner blog. I made a similar point in a piece about a related topic on Sunday. But Simon’s piece exposes a different angle of the bias issue that I’d like to explore further.

The headline of his article was “Government shutdown unleashes racism” and it was accompanied by a photo of Tea Party demonstrator waving a Confederate flag in front of the White House at a demonstration this past weekend. But the headline promised more than Simon could deliver as the only points presented in the piece that backed up the accusation lodged in the headline was the flag and a comment made on radio by “Joe the Plumber,” the conservative pseudo celebrity of the 2008 campaign who said in his blog that America needed a “white Republican president” to replace Barack Obama. Other than these two items, Simon’s piece was just the standard denunciation of the Republican stand on the shutdown and it was that theme rather than racism riff that was its substance.

I happen to agree with Simon, and probably most other Americans, that what the plumber said is racist and has no place in our public discourse, though if liberal pundits weren’t recycling the writings of the artist otherwise known as Samuel Wurzelbacher, I’m not sure that most of us would be aware of them.

I also agree that there is something offensive about waving Confederate flags in just about any context other than a Civil War reenactment. I know that those from the Old South see it as part of their heritage but I think we should be able to evolve as a nation away from the “Gone With The Wind” view of the War Between the States. Which means that the rebel battle flag is, whether inhabitants of the old Confederacy like it or not, a symbol of racism and treason (a term I know I employ at the risk of generating a host of angry comments from those unreconstructed Confederates who think the Civil War was about state’s rights rather than slavery and who believe recycling Jefferson Davis’ views about the right of secession isn’t irrational). While the attempts of many liberals like Chris Matthews to interpret all criticism of President Obama as being motivated by racism is slanderous as well as utterly disingenuous, I will concede to Simon that anyone who waves the stars and bars in front of the Obamas’ current residence is pretty much asking to be labeled a bigot and should get no defense from any responsible conservative.

The bias in discussing this issue doesn’t stem from a desire to condemn people who do such stupid things. Rather it is in the unwillingness to place them in reasonable context.

After all, at the height of the public protests against the Iraq War, the mass demonstrations in major American cities convened by liberal groups included large numbers of people who were more or less the leftist moral equivalent of the flag waver at the White House. You didn’t have to work hard at these events to find considerable numbers of those demonstrators waving signs accusing George W. Bush and/or Dick Cheney of being Nazis. Nor was there any shortage of rhetoric from these people demanding the ouster of the government of the republic by any means necessary. Yet that didn’t stop the mainstream liberal media from depicting the demonstrations as being in no way tainted by extremists who were along for the ride or from asserting, probably rightly, that they were a reflection of a large segment of American public opinion.

Just as the vast majority of those who wanted out of Iraq were able to see the difference between Bush/Cheney and Hitler, playing the racism card against the Tea Party is intellectually lazy as well as wrong. Both the left and the right need to do a better job policing those on the margins of mainstream movements. But that is not the same thing as painting an entire ideological segment of the public as a function of the fever swamps. Call Republicans who hatched the shutdown strategy misguided or even stupid if you like, but associating all those who want to restrain government spending and taxing and to repeal Obamacare, with racism is slander, not a rational argument.

That liberal pundits can’t resist the temptation to play off this meme says more about media bias than it does about problems on the right.

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The GOP Chooses Surrender Over Suicide

After more than two weeks, it appears that a deal is in place to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. The bargain that has been agreed to in principle by the leaders of the Senate will kick the can down the round until early next year. It will end the current crisis before things get so messy that it will cease to be a political problem and become an economic one. But there isn’t much doubt about the fact that Republicans get virtually nothing out of it. After months of huffing and puffing about ObamaCare as well as the debt, the GOP is now in a position where it has to choose between spiraling the country into what could become an economic crisis or to concede that it was basically all for nothing.

At the moment it appears that House Speaker John Boehner will ask members of his caucus to vote for a House version of the deal that is so similar to that of the Senate that any distinction is purely theoretical. But some of the conservatives who goaded Boehner into setting off this showdown are saying they won’t wave the white flag and hand this victory to President Obama. Indeed, one of them said this to the New York Times about supporting the Senate plan:

“We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

Huelskamp is blowing smoke about a primary challenge for everyone who votes with Boehner but he’s right that what he and other Republicans are being asked to do today is to surrender. But the question for him is the same one that could have been posed every day throughout this debate. What’s the alternative? Having started a fight without a strategy to win it or an endgame that could allow them to opt out of it without looking servile, it’s a little late to complain about a surrender caucus when the only other choice is a suicide caucus since allowing the debt ceiling to expire or to continue the shutdown indefinitely is not only bad politics but a blueprint for, as our John Steele Gordon pointed out yesterday, another recession or worse.

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After more than two weeks, it appears that a deal is in place to end the government shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. The bargain that has been agreed to in principle by the leaders of the Senate will kick the can down the round until early next year. It will end the current crisis before things get so messy that it will cease to be a political problem and become an economic one. But there isn’t much doubt about the fact that Republicans get virtually nothing out of it. After months of huffing and puffing about ObamaCare as well as the debt, the GOP is now in a position where it has to choose between spiraling the country into what could become an economic crisis or to concede that it was basically all for nothing.

At the moment it appears that House Speaker John Boehner will ask members of his caucus to vote for a House version of the deal that is so similar to that of the Senate that any distinction is purely theoretical. But some of the conservatives who goaded Boehner into setting off this showdown are saying they won’t wave the white flag and hand this victory to President Obama. Indeed, one of them said this to the New York Times about supporting the Senate plan:

“We’ve got a name for it in the House: it’s called the Senate surrender caucus,” said Representative Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas. “Anybody who would vote for that in the House as Republican would virtually guarantee a primary challenger.”

Huelskamp is blowing smoke about a primary challenge for everyone who votes with Boehner but he’s right that what he and other Republicans are being asked to do today is to surrender. But the question for him is the same one that could have been posed every day throughout this debate. What’s the alternative? Having started a fight without a strategy to win it or an endgame that could allow them to opt out of it without looking servile, it’s a little late to complain about a surrender caucus when the only other choice is a suicide caucus since allowing the debt ceiling to expire or to continue the shutdown indefinitely is not only bad politics but a blueprint for, as our John Steele Gordon pointed out yesterday, another recession or worse.

At this point, the problem is no longer about who is to blame for this.

Yes, as I have noted many times, blaming it all on the Tea Party doesn’t tell us much about how it happened. President Obama and the Democrats are being just as ideological as the GOP when they say they will not accept the defunding of ObamaCare. It’s also true that the president has been hoping for a shutdown since 2011 because he thought it would damage Republicans. His refusal to negotiate made the standoff happen and his party is also suffering a decline in public approval as a result of it.

But let’s also not deceive ourselves about which side gave Obama what he wanted. Conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee pushed for a showdown because they assured us that if Republicans hung tough, the president would blink. Much to the dismay of many more sober conservatives, Speaker Boehner went along with them and the GOP did wind up hanging as tough as the Tea Partiers had demanded. But as just about everybody who didn’t drink Cruz’s Kool-Aid predicted, the Democrats also stood their ground. With control of the Senate and the White House, the Democrats have a clear advantage over the Republicans and used it. If Boehner is now looking for the exit sign from the dead end that his party’s hardliners backed him into, it is because there really isn’t a choice.

No doubt conservatives will try and cling to some of the fig leaves left the in the Senate and House versions of the deal and say they accomplished something. But this will be as disingenuous as the Democrats’ claim to be the adults in the room. This is a Republican defeat pure and simple and there’s no way to sugarcoat it. And they’re accepting it because the alternative is to do the country material damage and to dig an even deeper political hole than the one they’ve already dug for themselves.

If there is anything to be retrieved from the rubble of the shutdown for Republicans it is the hope that the budget conference that is part of the deal might enable Rep. Paul Ryan — the voice of principle and sanity in the GOP caucus — to move the discussion from the simplistic demands of Cruz and Lee to a more productive debate about entitlement reform and debt that will strengthen the party’s position.

But that’s a discussion for another day. The real story now is about a GOP decision between surrender and suicide and their inevitable vote in favor of the former. It’s a bitter day for Boehner but the ones who should really be eating crow are Cruz, Lee and all those who backed him into this foolish gambit.

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Compromise and the American Constitution

In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
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In a fascinating essay in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch writes in praise of compromise, saying that “in our constitutional system, compromise is not merely a necessary evil but a positive good.” Rauch argues that compromise is part of the Madisonian framework–“the most essential principle of our constitutional system.” He adds, “Those who hammer out painful deals perform the hardest and, often, highest work of politics; they deserve, in general, respect for their willingness to constructively advance their ideals, not condemnation for treachery.”

In his essay, written with conservatives in mind, Rauch represents, in a fair-minded way, the Tea Party case against compromise. And to be sure, the virtue of compromise depends on circumstances and the nature of any given deal. It’s also quite possible to become so enchanted with the idea of compromise that we undervalue or, in the name of compromise, erode the principles that ennoble politics. Still, Rauch is on to something important when he warns against those who ideologically oppose compromise; who view it per se as suspect. That attitude is particularly problematic for those who refer to themselves as “constitutional conservatives.”

Why? Because anyone familiar with the history of the Constitution understands the central role compromise played in its creation. For example, the Constitutional Convention was deadlocked and on the verge of being derailed until the so-called Grand Compromise–offered up by Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth–reconciled the interests of small and large states. (Each state’s House members would be elected by the people and based on state population while each state would be represented by two senators chosen by the state legislatures.) As John J. DiIulio Jr. and the late James Q. Wilson argue in their textbook American Government, “After the Great Compromise many more issues had to be resolved, but by now a spirit of accommodation had developed.” The electoral college was the result of compromise; so was determining how Supreme Court justices were picked and the length of time a president could serve. And then there was the thorniest issue of all, slavery.
 The Southern delegates would never have supported the new Constitution if it meant the abolition of slavery. And so compromises were made in terms of representation (the South wanted slaves counted as full persons in order to increase their representation in Congress; eventually slaves were considered three-fifths of a person); in terms of delaying the prohibition on the importation of slaves (until the year 1808); and in dealing with escaped slaves (those who fled to non-slave states would be returned to their masters if caught).

Slavery was a moral obscenity–but in the words of Madison, “great as the evil is, a dismemberment of the union would be worse.” What the more enlightened founders hoped is that the Constitution would put in place the elements to end slavery. Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a great abolitionist leader, would later say, “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.” 

In her splendid book Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote, “In the Constitutional Convention, the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory. As Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood…. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride and when the moment comes, admit their error.”

I understand that among conservatives these days the idea of compromise is out of favor. And for understandable reasons: In Barack Obama the right is facing an unusually rigid and dogmatic individual, one who is himself averse to compromise and is intentionally polarizing. (Polarizing the electorate turned out to be his only ticket to reelection.)  

But perhaps because compromise as a concept is so unpopular these days–at least if my recent correspondence and conversations with those on the right is any indication–it is important that those of us who are conservative remind ourselves of its virtues. To point out that compromise is not always synonymous with weakness. That our problems, as significant as they are, pale in comparison to what the founders faced. And that compromise still belongs, in the words of Rauch, in the “constitutional pantheon.” Even the Obama presidency, as frustrating as it might be, cannot undo the marvelous handiwork and enduring insights of James Madison.

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