Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tea Party

The South Carolina Test Case

South Carolina conservatives smell blood. After a year in which Lindsey Graham has been identified with unpopular causes like immigration reform, opposing shutting down the government to defund ObamaCare, and reaffirmed his status as one of the leading internationalists in the Senate, the woods appear to be full of Republicans who think he’s vulnerable. With three candidates having already declared their intention to challenge the incumbent, you’d think Graham would be running scared about the chances of holding onto his seat in a state where the right predominates. But if Graham has spent 2016 acting like a politician desperate to modify his behavior in order to convince the grass roots he isn’t the RINO caricature they claim him to be, he has good reason. Not only does he have an enormous advantage in fundraising, the sheer number of opposing candidates is going to make it difficult for any one of them to break out and turn a GOP primary into a one-on-one contest that a relative moderate like Graham might lose.

These factors complicate what might otherwise be a perfect example of the struggle for the future of the Republican Party that is convulsing the GOP in the aftermath of their 2012 defeat. Graham would seem to be the perfect test case to see if a conservative senator who a) is willing to work with Democrats on some controversial issues like immigration; b) is more interested in preserving his niche as a moderating voice on foreign affairs along with his friend John McCain than in feeding conservative paranoia about government spying, in the manner of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; and c) refuses to join the suicide caucus in the Senate like Cruz in order to pander to the Tea Party can survive a Republican primary in a conservative state. Though Graham ought to be marked for extinction because of these factors, circumstances and the absence of a single strong opponent may enable him to survive.

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South Carolina conservatives smell blood. After a year in which Lindsey Graham has been identified with unpopular causes like immigration reform, opposing shutting down the government to defund ObamaCare, and reaffirmed his status as one of the leading internationalists in the Senate, the woods appear to be full of Republicans who think he’s vulnerable. With three candidates having already declared their intention to challenge the incumbent, you’d think Graham would be running scared about the chances of holding onto his seat in a state where the right predominates. But if Graham has spent 2016 acting like a politician desperate to modify his behavior in order to convince the grass roots he isn’t the RINO caricature they claim him to be, he has good reason. Not only does he have an enormous advantage in fundraising, the sheer number of opposing candidates is going to make it difficult for any one of them to break out and turn a GOP primary into a one-on-one contest that a relative moderate like Graham might lose.

These factors complicate what might otherwise be a perfect example of the struggle for the future of the Republican Party that is convulsing the GOP in the aftermath of their 2012 defeat. Graham would seem to be the perfect test case to see if a conservative senator who a) is willing to work with Democrats on some controversial issues like immigration; b) is more interested in preserving his niche as a moderating voice on foreign affairs along with his friend John McCain than in feeding conservative paranoia about government spying, in the manner of Rand Paul and Ted Cruz; and c) refuses to join the suicide caucus in the Senate like Cruz in order to pander to the Tea Party can survive a Republican primary in a conservative state. Though Graham ought to be marked for extinction because of these factors, circumstances and the absence of a single strong opponent may enable him to survive.

As the New York Times reports today, the GOP field for 2014 in South Carolina is already crowded. Though Nancy Mace, the first female graduate of the Citadel, would seem to be the perfect alternative to Graham, she is beset by her own problems relating to her connection with a political gossip website that gained notoriety in 2010 when it was part of an attack on Governor Nikki Haley. Neither of the other two, State Senator Lee Bright and Richard Cash, seems to have much on the ball, though it’s far too early to judge them.

But so long as Graham can find safety in numbers on the primary ballot, he may well be able to avoid the fate of other Republicans like Richard Lugar who were perceived as Washington institutions that lost touch with the sentiments of their local party.

That’s an interesting development in a year when we’re supposed to think that the GOP is trending so far to the right that anyone who can be accused of choosing realistic opposition to the Obama administration, rather than to join in the rush to take the party over the cliff, is supposed to be marked for extinction.

That said, Graham is far from safe. South Carolina is also the home state of former Senate colleague and current Heritage Foundation chief Jim DeMint, who has taken to promoting the idea that any Republican that won’t vote to defund the government over ObamaCare should be replaced. Should immigration reform and his internationalist stands become even more radioactive on the right than they are now, it will heighten his difficulties. Moreover, if a viable challenger like Mace emerges from the field, then Graham may be in more trouble than he seems to be in now.

However, a Graham victory in a South Carolina GOP primary, no matter what the circumstances, will be rightly seen as a sign that Republicans are not quite as far gone as the liberal mainstream media hopes them to be.

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The Tea Party and Town Halls

Readers of today’s New York Times feature on the decline of congressional recess town hall meetings would gain much by going back about a year to the divergence of the Tea Party model and the Occupy Wall Street model of political participation. After May Day 2012, Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson broke from his self-described objectivity in covering the pseudoanarchist Occupy movement. Though he said he considered himself a reporter and not a pundit, he believed Occupy–which he greatly admired–was in desperate need of his advice. Hineni, came the response: Harkinson would tell Occupy how to succeed.

It’s unclear whether and how much Occupy was taking notes on Harkinson’s pronouncements, but the article was a telling example of a question that had dogged Occupy from the beginning: Could it be anything more than the vocalization of misdirected anger? The answer seemed to be a resounding no. But the heart of the question was really about a comparison with the Tea Party, which had channeled its outrage into constructive participation in the democratic process–something Occupy never did. Here is how Harkinson described the conundrum:

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Readers of today’s New York Times feature on the decline of congressional recess town hall meetings would gain much by going back about a year to the divergence of the Tea Party model and the Occupy Wall Street model of political participation. After May Day 2012, Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson broke from his self-described objectivity in covering the pseudoanarchist Occupy movement. Though he said he considered himself a reporter and not a pundit, he believed Occupy–which he greatly admired–was in desperate need of his advice. Hineni, came the response: Harkinson would tell Occupy how to succeed.

It’s unclear whether and how much Occupy was taking notes on Harkinson’s pronouncements, but the article was a telling example of a question that had dogged Occupy from the beginning: Could it be anything more than the vocalization of misdirected anger? The answer seemed to be a resounding no. But the heart of the question was really about a comparison with the Tea Party, which had channeled its outrage into constructive participation in the democratic process–something Occupy never did. Here is how Harkinson described the conundrum:

Though Occupy could support many sympathetic candidates in Democratic primaries, some pundits haven’t pushed the idea because they worry about a tea party effect on the left, with liberal Democrats losing to Republicans in the general election. Yet other than a third-party bid, with its potential for another Nader debacle, this may be the only way to command Washington’s attention.

There were always concerns within Occupy of being co-opted by the national Democratic Party, or of being suppressed by it in elections. Those same concerns were present for the Tea Party–some Tea Party candidates lost otherwise-winnable seats, others rocketed to conservative stardom after dispatching “establishment” candidates in primary contests and winning Senate and House seats.

But what Harkinson seemed to understand was that grassroots political movements don’t hang around and tread water; they sink or swim. The Tea Party and Occupy would not be permanent fixtures on the American political landscape if they never evolved beyond protest crowds. Occupy may not have wanted to “go legitimate,” so to speak (though they might say “go corporate”), but the only other option was to fade. And fade they did. Meanwhile, the Tea Party went to Washington.

Neither movement has nearly the grassroots excitement or momentum it once had, but for very different reasons. Occupy never evolved into anything concrete. The Tea Party became a major force in American politics. So when the Times reports on the relative lack of bustling town halls, the fact that Tea Partiers are no longer only on the outside of Congress looking in, and thus in need of ways to get Congress’s attention, has much to do with it.

There are other reasons as well. Conservative activists wondering where their representatives are have a point when they say some elected Republicans don’t want to face the crowds. It is a testament to the Tea Party’s effectiveness and the grassroots influence within the party that some Republicans fear any confrontation with energized and organized factions no longer consigned to the sidelines. It is also the case that on some key issues, the conservative base has already won the battle over public opinion. They and their representatives are generally on the same side when it comes to ObamaCare, which was the subject of many a town hall in the lead-up to its enactment. It’s true that there is an intramural disagreement over shutting down the government without an agreement to defund ObamaCare, but that is not the same as debating the passage of the bill itself.

The other major issue subject to town halls in recent years has been immigration. The Times story makes note of this, but with one understated twist:

Immigration groups, like Alliance for Citizenship, which supports a plan like the Senate’s that would grant citizenship to the 11 million people here illegally, are almost exclusively targeting House Republicans, who now hold the key to passing any immigration overhaul legislation. The Democratic-controlled Senate has already approved one. One of the alliance’s targets this month has been Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, who has not announced any town halls but did participate in them in 2009.

Those pining for town halls on immigration are pro-immigration interest groups. They want to pressure Republicans to adopt, not oppose, immigration reform with a path to citizenship. It is only natural that the groups in support of legislation will usually be less impressive or vocal than those against. And in this instance, that’s better for Republicans than when it was the other way around in 2006.

Leading up to that year’s midterm elections Republicans held anti-immigration meetings, and the results–a dramatic drop in the GOP share of the Hispanic vote–may be nudging Republicans away from holding public meetings on immigration at all if they can help it. They could very well be reticent to open the floodgates by calling any town hall to discuss immigration, especially in deep-red districts.

Whether voters support or oppose a specific piece of immigration legislation, surely many of them understand how off-putting anti-immigration rallies can be. It’s one thing to angrily protest a bill like ObamaCare or tax cuts; but to fulminate in large public gatherings denouncing immigrants is much more personally offensive to those on the receiving end because of basic issues of identity. Republicans are wise to avoid such a spectacle. More generally, conservatives should understand that their success is a major factor in the decline of the town halls.

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What Does the Tea Party Want?

Yesterday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a little fun at the expense of his Republican counterpart when he joked that Mitch McConnell had “tried to make love to the Tea Party but they didn’t like it.” The vulgar reference was to the fact that it appears as if the minority leader will be facing a primary challenge from an opponent claiming to represent the interests of Tea Party conservatives anxious to knock off one of the leading members of the Washington establishment. Politico reported on Friday that Matt Bevin, a Louisville investment analyst, had begun reserving airtime for television ads in anticipation of launching an effort to unseat McConnell. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Bevin will announce his candidacy tomorrow. This means that after working hard to shore up ties with conservatives in his home state—a process that included making nice with Senate colleague Rand Paul—McConnell will still find himself in a fight to retain the GOP nomination against a candidate who is presumably rich enough to self-fund his campaign.

Despite his cordial relationship with the minority leader, Paul is not seeking to discourage the Bevin challenge, merely saying that “it’s a free country” even as he predicts a McConnell victory. While not exactly neutral—Paul has endorsed McConnell’s reelection—that ambivalence will serve Bevin’s interests since the conceit of his candidacy is that he, rather than McConnell, truly represents the beliefs of the GOP’s activist base that adores the libertarian icon. The fact that Bevin’s campaign spokeswoman is a former president of the Louisville Tea Party lends some credence to that notion.

While, as Paul says, McConnell is likely to beat Bevin, the question for Tea Partiers in Kentucky isn’t so much about the challenger’s qualifications or even the popularity of the incumbent. It’s something much more fundamental: What exactly do they want? While Tea Party conservatives had some rationale to challenge other Republican incumbents, such as Indiana’s Richard Lugar, in recent election cycles, the choice here isn’t between a moderate and a conservative but between two conservatives. After leading the fight against the stimulus, ObamaCare and becoming the major obstacle to virtually every other item on the president’s agenda, it’s fair to ask what Tea Partiers can ask McConnell to do that he hasn’t already tried to accomplish?

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Yesterday Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had a little fun at the expense of his Republican counterpart when he joked that Mitch McConnell had “tried to make love to the Tea Party but they didn’t like it.” The vulgar reference was to the fact that it appears as if the minority leader will be facing a primary challenge from an opponent claiming to represent the interests of Tea Party conservatives anxious to knock off one of the leading members of the Washington establishment. Politico reported on Friday that Matt Bevin, a Louisville investment analyst, had begun reserving airtime for television ads in anticipation of launching an effort to unseat McConnell. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Bevin will announce his candidacy tomorrow. This means that after working hard to shore up ties with conservatives in his home state—a process that included making nice with Senate colleague Rand Paul—McConnell will still find himself in a fight to retain the GOP nomination against a candidate who is presumably rich enough to self-fund his campaign.

Despite his cordial relationship with the minority leader, Paul is not seeking to discourage the Bevin challenge, merely saying that “it’s a free country” even as he predicts a McConnell victory. While not exactly neutral—Paul has endorsed McConnell’s reelection—that ambivalence will serve Bevin’s interests since the conceit of his candidacy is that he, rather than McConnell, truly represents the beliefs of the GOP’s activist base that adores the libertarian icon. The fact that Bevin’s campaign spokeswoman is a former president of the Louisville Tea Party lends some credence to that notion.

While, as Paul says, McConnell is likely to beat Bevin, the question for Tea Partiers in Kentucky isn’t so much about the challenger’s qualifications or even the popularity of the incumbent. It’s something much more fundamental: What exactly do they want? While Tea Party conservatives had some rationale to challenge other Republican incumbents, such as Indiana’s Richard Lugar, in recent election cycles, the choice here isn’t between a moderate and a conservative but between two conservatives. After leading the fight against the stimulus, ObamaCare and becoming the major obstacle to virtually every other item on the president’s agenda, it’s fair to ask what Tea Partiers can ask McConnell to do that he hasn’t already tried to accomplish?

Nobody, not even the head of a party caucus, is entitled to a Senate seat by divine right. As is the case in Wyoming, where Liz Cheney is challenging Mike Enzi, if a younger, better Republican comes along there is no reason why voters shouldn’t have the opportunity to choose between them and the incumbent. But if Bevin is going to be embraced by Tea Partiers in the manner of other insurgents around the nation, they will be hard pressed to make a case that the conservative cause will be better served by McConnell’s defeat than by his reelection.

Some Tea Partiers won’t forgive McConnell for voting for the TARP bailout in 2008 or for going along with the fiscal cliff deal at the start of the year. Some just instinctively distrust any incumbent or anyone who is part of Washington’s power elite no matter what their positions. But if Tea Partiers or other advocacy groups, such as the Club for Growth or those groups associated with current Heritage Foundation chief and former Senator Jim DeMint, were to embrace Bevin, a better explanation is in order.

Not everyone in Washington or back home in Kentucky may love McConnell, but it’s difficult to argue that he hasn’t been Barack Obama’s chief antagonist over the past few years. While House Speaker John Boehner is the highest ranking Republican and a clear foe of the White House, McConnell’s guerrilla warfare against the presidential agenda in the Democrat-controlled Senate has set the tone for the partisan divide in Congress. Though he has been accused of pandering to the Tea Party in order to avoid the challenge that Bevin is providing, McConnell is still public enemy No. 1 for Democrats. That’s exactly why Reid and the rest of the D.C. liberal establishment are thrilled about McConnell having to face a well-funded challenger. Simply put, there is no current issue, even those on which conservatives disagree like immigration reform, in which McConnell cannot be counted on as a leading force for the right.

Just as important, and in a dramatic distinction to the case in Wyoming, Democrats do stand to benefit if McConnell is forced to spend heavily in order to fend off Bevin. Expected Democratic candidate Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes is no pushover and will have the full backing of her national party next year. Kentucky may be deep red in presidential elections, but Democrats remain competitive in state and local races there. If Tea Partiers create a genuine schism on behalf of Bevin, it is far from inconceivable that Grimes could take advantage of it and steal a seat from the GOP in a year when they are expected to gain ground in the Senate.

All this is not to say that Bevin doesn’t have the right to run or to make a case for himself if there is one. But what it does mean is that he should not do so with the imprimatur of national conservatives who should understand the consequences of torpedoing a genuine conservative leader merely for spite or to prove they can do it. 

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The GOP’s Deep Hole

I spent the last week in Washington State and had several conversations with people about the Republican Party. What I discovered wasn’t encouraging for the Grand Old Party.  

The people I spoke to are life-long Republican voters, but to a person they were deeply disappointed with the GOP. When I pressed them on why, I heard different, and even competing, explanations. Some thought the Republican Party was too beholden to the Tea Party and too rigid on social issues. They were concerned the GOP was coming across as obstructionist and taking a suicidal position on immigration (by coming across as anti-immigration). Others believed the GOP was too moderate and conciliatory, that they were not Tea Party enough, and that they were taking a suicidal position on immigration (by embracing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants). Their level of unhappiness with the Republican Party was roughly the same—but for entirely different reasons.

Here’s where things get interesting. I decided to do my best Reince Priebus imitation, addressing as specifically and carefully as I could each of the objections that were raised. My interlocutors were often willing to concede the points I made. Yet their negative attitude toward the GOP remained. 

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I spent the last week in Washington State and had several conversations with people about the Republican Party. What I discovered wasn’t encouraging for the Grand Old Party.  

The people I spoke to are life-long Republican voters, but to a person they were deeply disappointed with the GOP. When I pressed them on why, I heard different, and even competing, explanations. Some thought the Republican Party was too beholden to the Tea Party and too rigid on social issues. They were concerned the GOP was coming across as obstructionist and taking a suicidal position on immigration (by coming across as anti-immigration). Others believed the GOP was too moderate and conciliatory, that they were not Tea Party enough, and that they were taking a suicidal position on immigration (by embracing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants). Their level of unhappiness with the Republican Party was roughly the same—but for entirely different reasons.

Here’s where things get interesting. I decided to do my best Reince Priebus imitation, addressing as specifically and carefully as I could each of the objections that were raised. My interlocutors were often willing to concede the points I made. Yet their negative attitude toward the GOP remained. 

As one person pointed out to me after our conversation, the mood was based less on the policy stands of the Republican Party, less on substance, and more on emotion. What has happened, as best as I can tell, is that the reelection of Barack Obama, as well as Democratic gains in the Senate, had a shattering effect on the confidence many Republicans have in the GOP. Their view seems to be that if the Republican Party couldn’t defeat a failed president like Obama or make gains in the Senate in a year that should have favored Republicans, it is manifestly inept. The disappointment in Obama’s victory has turned people who were once highly engaged in politics away from it, even now, nine months after the election. Call it a long post-election hangover. 

This kind of reaction isn’t unusual for a party that lost a presidential election it expected to win, though my sense is the unhappiness and despair runs deeper among Republicans than in the past. Some of this will fade away with time. The president is off to a very rough start in his second term, after all, and Republicans might be re-energized enough, and Democrats despondent enough, that the GOP makes significant gains in the 2014 mid-term elections. But I came away from my trip with a sense that the Republican Party has very deep problems with its own supporters, many of them based on perception more than reality, and it will require politicians with some fairly impressive political talents to revive the party to a dominant position in American politics. It’s a very long way from that right now.

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Defend Arendt, Demonize the Tea Party

More than 50 years after it was published, the debate about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is still red hot. Her famous thesis about “the banality of evil” that the pedestrian-looking mass murderer supposedly exemplified has been hashed and rehashed by intellectuals for generations and will, it must be conceded, probably go on entertaining and infuriating generations of writers yet to be born. Suffice it to say that most serious thinkers understood her misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history. It not only portrayed him in almost neutral light but castigated many of his Jewish victims in way that told us a lot more about Arendt’s own conflicted feelings about her Jewish identity that it did about a Nazi monster.

Yet as wrong-headed as her book was, it continues to attract ardent supporters. One such fan is Margerethe von Trotta whose recent film Hannah Arendt treats the writer kindly and endorses her thesis. For an excellent summation of the film’s flaws as well as keen insight into the literary and philosophical background of Arendt’s book, I’d recommend Margot Lurie’s essay on the film in the July/August issue of Standpoint magazine. The film has, like the book that inspired it, gotten mixed reviews. But perhaps none of those who like it are as impassioned as Bard College’s Roger Berkowitz, who heads the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at the school. Berkowitz’s column in the on-line edition of the New York Times earlier this week is a compendium of every possible defense that could be arrayed in favor of his center’s namesake. He sees her and her embattled volume as the font of philosophical truth and insight. Despite the weight of historical evidence that Arendt missed, Berkowitz claims her view of Eichmann as being not motivated by fanaticism but by the impulse of a “joiner” who will do anything for a movement that gives his life meaning is true. That is poor history that has been debunked countless times by historians with a better grasp of the issue than either Arendt or Berkowitz. But what really troubles me is the final paragraph of Berkowitz’s love letter to the late Arendt:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom.

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

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More than 50 years after it was published, the debate about Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem is still red hot. Her famous thesis about “the banality of evil” that the pedestrian-looking mass murderer supposedly exemplified has been hashed and rehashed by intellectuals for generations and will, it must be conceded, probably go on entertaining and infuriating generations of writers yet to be born. Suffice it to say that most serious thinkers understood her misleading characterization of Adolf Eichmann was bad history. It not only portrayed him in almost neutral light but castigated many of his Jewish victims in way that told us a lot more about Arendt’s own conflicted feelings about her Jewish identity that it did about a Nazi monster.

Yet as wrong-headed as her book was, it continues to attract ardent supporters. One such fan is Margerethe von Trotta whose recent film Hannah Arendt treats the writer kindly and endorses her thesis. For an excellent summation of the film’s flaws as well as keen insight into the literary and philosophical background of Arendt’s book, I’d recommend Margot Lurie’s essay on the film in the July/August issue of Standpoint magazine. The film has, like the book that inspired it, gotten mixed reviews. But perhaps none of those who like it are as impassioned as Bard College’s Roger Berkowitz, who heads the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at the school. Berkowitz’s column in the on-line edition of the New York Times earlier this week is a compendium of every possible defense that could be arrayed in favor of his center’s namesake. He sees her and her embattled volume as the font of philosophical truth and insight. Despite the weight of historical evidence that Arendt missed, Berkowitz claims her view of Eichmann as being not motivated by fanaticism but by the impulse of a “joiner” who will do anything for a movement that gives his life meaning is true. That is poor history that has been debunked countless times by historians with a better grasp of the issue than either Arendt or Berkowitz. But what really troubles me is the final paragraph of Berkowitz’s love letter to the late Arendt:

At a time when confidence in American institutions is at an all-time low, Arendt’s insistence that we see Eichmann as a terrifyingly normal “déclassé son of a solid middle-class family” who was radicalized by an idealistic anti-state movement should resonate even more urgently today. That is ever more reason to free Arendt’s book, once again, from the tyranny of the conventional wisdom.

While he doesn’t say so bluntly, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Berkowitz is making a not terribly subtle reference to those middle-class Americans who want smaller government and a less intrusive federal oversight of their lives as being somehow the moral equivalent of Eichmann. I’ve read more than my share of attempts to justify Arendt’s banality of evil thesis, but this is the first that attempts to enlist her in the fight against the Tea Party.

The sheer chutzpah as well as the colossal inappropriateness of Berkowitz’s insinuation is, by itself, enough to disqualify him as a rational voice about the subject. But let’s dignify his smear to the extent of pointing out one very important inaccuracy of his conclusion. Contrary to his assertion, Nazism was not an “anti-state movement” whether one wishes to call it “idealistic” or monstrous. It was, in fact, a classic example of a movement that worshiped the state and sought to sacrifice individual rights on the altar of the collective. In the case of Germany, it was the glorification of the German state and its leader while in Russia it was the socialist ideal and a different evil monster. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand the Nazis, Eichmann or the Holocaust he helped perpetrate.

The continued desire of liberal ideologues to embrace Hannah Arendt’s misreading of Eichmann is rooted in their unquenchable desire to avoid facing the facts about evil. But if that foolish interpretation of history now extends to branding contemporary conservatives as somehow would-be Eichmanns, then we must acknowledge that 21st century liberalism has jumped the shark in a way that few of its conservative critics could have imagined.

Far from Arendt’s book being important to understanding the mentality of the Tea Party, it seems to have given us a unique insight into contemporary liberal prejudices against their political opponents. How ironic that a writer who humanized a Nazi monster now provides inspiration to liberals who want to demonize Republicans.

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The Logic of the Farm Bill’s Failure

Thanks to the whip count, there is usually an inverse relationship between the scope of a piece of legislation and the drama of the vote itself. The more important, controversial, or far-reaching a bill, the more embarrassing would be its televised defeat. And, especially with regard to unpopular or controversial bills, legislators don’t want to go on record voting for a doomed law.

So there is something almost refreshing about moments of suspense or surprise in Congress, one of which took place yesterday. The New York Times reports: “The surprise defeat of the farm bill in the House on Thursday underscored the ideological divide between the more conservative, antispending Republican lawmakers and their leadership, who failed to garner sufficient votes from their caucus as well as from Democrats.”

This is an incomplete portrait of the vote, since it may be technically true that Republicans failed to garner sufficient votes from Democrats–but so did the Democratic House leadership, specifically Nancy Pelosi. Each parties’ House leadership promised the other more votes than it ultimately supplied. Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner weren’t thrilled about the bill, and their base flanks hated it. The point was to pass something and then make adjustments in committee. It might be accurate to say, then, that what happened was the House voted down a bill it didn’t like.

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Thanks to the whip count, there is usually an inverse relationship between the scope of a piece of legislation and the drama of the vote itself. The more important, controversial, or far-reaching a bill, the more embarrassing would be its televised defeat. And, especially with regard to unpopular or controversial bills, legislators don’t want to go on record voting for a doomed law.

So there is something almost refreshing about moments of suspense or surprise in Congress, one of which took place yesterday. The New York Times reports: “The surprise defeat of the farm bill in the House on Thursday underscored the ideological divide between the more conservative, antispending Republican lawmakers and their leadership, who failed to garner sufficient votes from their caucus as well as from Democrats.”

This is an incomplete portrait of the vote, since it may be technically true that Republicans failed to garner sufficient votes from Democrats–but so did the Democratic House leadership, specifically Nancy Pelosi. Each parties’ House leadership promised the other more votes than it ultimately supplied. Pelosi and Speaker John Boehner weren’t thrilled about the bill, and their base flanks hated it. The point was to pass something and then make adjustments in committee. It might be accurate to say, then, that what happened was the House voted down a bill it didn’t like.

That’s less colorful than the press coverage depicting raging Tea Partiers staging an insurrection and virtually chasing Boehner from the House floor with pitchforks and torches. If you give every lawmaker a reason to vote against a bill, as happened with the farm bill, they very well may take you up on it. First of all, as Bethany noted yesterday, from a spending standpoint it isn’t so much a farm bill as a food stamp bill. Of the bill’s $939.5 billion in spending, most of it was on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Leading up to the bill, Democrats engaged in a stunt called the “SNAP Challenge,” in which they would try to feed themselves on a SNAP budget. They did not exactly shine on this one, and ended up proving two things: that Democratic members of Congress don’t know what the word “supplemental” means (the program is not intended to be the sum total of anyone’s food budget), and that many can’t be relied upon to budget for themselves, even though they are empowered to budget for the country.

The latter realization made the “SNAP Challenge” not only silly, but also vaguely terrifying. And it helped doom the bill. Democrats, confused by their trip to the supermarket and the purpose of the SNAP program, decided there wasn’t enough money in the bill for it. Conservatives, who did not suffer from the same confusion, thought the mammoth spending bill spent too much. This is a recipe for a failed bill, which was exactly the fate that awaited the legislation.

There were the inevitable hysterical reactions by those who didn’t get their way that democracy is in peril. Politico refers to these folks in its reaction story: “People involved in the farm debate, irate at the sudden defeat, say the House is plainly not working.” But actually, the opposite is true. In a perceptive post on the failure of the bill, which he called “over-determined,” National Review’s Dan Foster writes:

Maybe Boehner and Cantor made a tactical mistake. They could have gone much, much bigger on the food stamp cuts—say, rolling back the program to its pre-recession size—in order to shore up the caucus, Democratic votes be damned. Remember that this vote wasn’t the end game anyway. The point was to pass something and then hammer out a compromise in conference committee, away from glaring media eyes and pesky rank-and-filers. Besides, the president had vowed to veto the House bill anyway, so why not go bigger?

In other words, the GOP House could have followed the Democrats’ playbook and simply passed a more partisan bill along partisan lines. The House can pass legislation on a majority vote without having to face a filibuster or other of the Senate’s procedural brake pedals. What doomed this particular bill was its attempt at bipartisanship and corralling Democratic votes that were promised but not delivered. This is why although the post-bill partisan finger pointing is obnoxious from both sides, Pelosi’s lashing out at the GOP is absurd. They could have passed a more conservative bill without her caucus or her input. Her behavior is now encouraging them to do exactly that.

And so is the pressure on Boehner (and, to a lesser extent, Cantor). Foster makes what I think is a very important point when he writes: “The revolt of conservatives against traditional caucus hierarchy is starting to feel like a semi-permanent development in American politics.” It does not benefit Cantor to have these surprise votes. Someone has to better take the temperature of the House conservatives, and if Cantor doesn’t serve as that link between the base and the leadership then he’s going to find both sides wondering what his role is in all this.

Supporters of the farm bill cannot credibly make the claim that the bill was too partisan to pass. And the leadership of both parties would do well to stop talking about House conservatives as if they are spoiled, petulant children. If they were sent to Congress to do anything amid the rise of Tea Party politics, it was to vote down bloated spending schemes. There is an argument to be made that some Tea Partiers have been too averse to governing. But governing sometimes means voting against bad legislation, and the farm bill had few merits.

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Listen to Grassroots Voices of IRS Victims

Democrats and liberal pundits are trashing House Republicans for continuing to hold hearings on the Internal Revenue Service scandal this week. While paying lip service to the need to condemn the agency’s politically motivated targeting of conservative organizations, they’re claiming the entire exercise is nothing more than political theater. Others go farther. Democratic Representative Jim McDermott told representatives of the groups that were singled out for unfair treatment by the IRS at a hearing this morning that they were to blame for what happened since their political motivations should have rendered them ineligible for nonprofit status in the first place.

This is all part of a counter-narrative that the left has been working hard to establish in the last month in order to divert the public from the misbehavior of the IRS. They hope that rather than increasing scrutiny on the tax agency, the American people will instead be maneuvered into thinking that the real problem here is the desire of conservative-oriented groups to have their voices heard.

But what came through in the hearings today should have shaken those who have bought into the media’s caricatures of the Tea Party and other conservative activists as racist bullies who are the cats’ paws of a vast right-wing conspiracy funded by big business. Whatever comes out of these hearings in terms of holding the IRS accountable, today’s event at least let the victims of the agency speak. And what they said gave the lie to those who have depicted them unfairly. The testimony didn’t just illustrate how groups of citizens were subjected to biased treatment because of their beliefs. What those watching on television heard were the genuine voices of America’s grass roots.

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Democrats and liberal pundits are trashing House Republicans for continuing to hold hearings on the Internal Revenue Service scandal this week. While paying lip service to the need to condemn the agency’s politically motivated targeting of conservative organizations, they’re claiming the entire exercise is nothing more than political theater. Others go farther. Democratic Representative Jim McDermott told representatives of the groups that were singled out for unfair treatment by the IRS at a hearing this morning that they were to blame for what happened since their political motivations should have rendered them ineligible for nonprofit status in the first place.

This is all part of a counter-narrative that the left has been working hard to establish in the last month in order to divert the public from the misbehavior of the IRS. They hope that rather than increasing scrutiny on the tax agency, the American people will instead be maneuvered into thinking that the real problem here is the desire of conservative-oriented groups to have their voices heard.

But what came through in the hearings today should have shaken those who have bought into the media’s caricatures of the Tea Party and other conservative activists as racist bullies who are the cats’ paws of a vast right-wing conspiracy funded by big business. Whatever comes out of these hearings in terms of holding the IRS accountable, today’s event at least let the victims of the agency speak. And what they said gave the lie to those who have depicted them unfairly. The testimony didn’t just illustrate how groups of citizens were subjected to biased treatment because of their beliefs. What those watching on television heard were the genuine voices of America’s grass roots.

The horror stories of IRS abuse told today in front of Congress should send a chill down the spines of Americans. The groups were not merely investigated. They were told to hand over donor lists and scrutinized in a manner that made it clear that it was not so much their non-profit status that interested the agents conducting the inquisition but their beliefs, whether it was a desire to educate about the Constitution or opposition to abortion. What’s more, they were given the impression that what was going on wasn’t the whims of few rogue employees in Cincinnati but the will of their higher ups in Washington. As Becky Gerritson of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Alabama put it, “the individuals who tried to intimidate us” were only acting as they thought they should. “They think they are our masters.”

But the passion of Gerritson and her colleagues from other targeted groups should remind us most of all that the Tea Party movement wasn’t some top-down invention of the Koch brothers or other conservative oligarchs. These were ordinary citizens who banded together to talk about the Constitution and to petition their government in the time-honored manner of American democracy. They are not the cartoon villains of liberal myth that had actress/singer Bette Midler thanking the IRS on Twitter for targeting them as a “hate” group.

Democrats would prefer we spend our time discussing how to change the laws in order to make it harder for groups to express their beliefs. For them, political speech is the problem and the solution is to restrict it. Moreover, the belief that giving tax-exempt status to groups amounts to their being subsidized by the taxpayers—as McDermott said today—is another liberal myth. Like President Obama’s attempts to wage a war on philanthropy, this sort of thinking is based on the idea that our income belongs to the Treasury and that any portion of it that we are allowed to keep is a gift from Uncle Sam.

The goal of the left is to make it harder for conservatives and anyone else who dissents from liberal ideology to have their voices heard. That’s why they wish to target conservative groups and overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened up the public square to more political speech, something that outrages a group that benefited from their dominance of the mainstream media. Let’s hope more Americans listen to the testimony of the activists and are inspired by their efforts to make the government accountable.

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GOP Already Tried the Bob Dole Paradigm

Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.

To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.

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Democrats are chortling about the latest round of grousing about the current Republican Party from those associated with its past. Bob Dole’s interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News this past weekend lent weight to one of the White House’s most important talking points about the GOP being in the hands of extremists. He said the Republican National Committee ought to put up a “closed for repairs” sign and blasted the current generation of the GOP as one that wouldn’t have accepted him or even conservative icon Ronald Reagan. But as much Dole deserves our respect for his sacrifice during World War Two and his lifelong service to his country, the idea that he is the sort of Republican politician that current members of Congress should emulate is ridiculous. There is a reason why you don’t see too many Dole-style types in the GOP these days: he was obsolete twenty years ago.

To say that Dole passed his best-used date is not to mock him for his age or infirmity. The fact that he is wheelchair-bound and losing his sight should grieve us all. He is the exemplar of the “greatest generation” veteran who nearly died as a result of his wounds and then spent nearly four decades in public life in the postwar era. He deserves every possible honor that his country can give him. But let’s get real. Dole was also an apt symbol of the failures of the self-proclaimed Eisenhower Republicans in Congress. His get-along-to-go-along style in which compromise always seemed to be the keynote was never going to fix the out-of-control growth of the federal government, it just managed it. As much as the abrasiveness of Ted Cruz makes many of us long for the more easygoing style of partisanship Dole practiced, there was a reason the GOP abandoned it: it didn’t work.

Republicans do need to spend time rethinking their strategies this year and as our Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson pointed out in their seminal COMMENTARY article on the subject earlier this year, there is plenty of room for change in the GOP. But whatever path the party ultimately chooses, the last thing they need to do is to channel the spirit Dole. That is, unless they want to repeat his legislative futility or his defeat in the 1996 presidential election.

Dole may still resent Newt Gingrich’s calling him the “tax collector for the welfare state” but the reason why that phrase stuck is that his generation of Republican leaders accepted the premise that their purpose was to work within the existing political structure rather than trying to tear it down and rebuild it. Dole was not the RINO some on the right thought and was, in his own way, as tart a partisan wag as any of his successors in the GOP caucus. But he also represented a spirit of accommodation that went beyond the schmoozing needed to pass legislation when both parties could agree. If the Republican Party moved in a different direction in the early 90’s with Gingrich’s Republican revolution and then later with the Tea Party that rejected the free-spending GOP of the George W. Bush era, it was because there are times when parties need people who will offer a genuine alternative rather than a willingness to compromise principles.

It is also foolish for Dole, or anyone else, to claim that Ronald Reagan would have been rejected by the current brand of Republicans. Reagan was the product of another era and was animated by different key issues such as the need to resist Communism. The paradigm of Cold war conservatism may be able to help today’s Republicans find their way in defending America against contemporary threats but, like it or not, foreign policy no longer defines most politicians. However, it needs to be understood that Reagan took his party as far to the right on domestic issues as he could in his day.

If today’s Republicans are able to articulate a more far-reaching critique of the government leviathan that Reagan despised, it is because they are standing on his shoulders. In Reagan’s days, the party was also divided between more ideological conservatives and the moderates, among whose number Dole was quite prominent. Dole was on the wrong side of that argument. If today’s Republicans reject his style of politics it is not a rejection of Reagan but a continuation of the spirit of conservatism that the 40th president embodied. To claim that he wouldn’t fit in among today’s Republicans makes as much sense as claiming John F. Kennedy or any other figure from the past wouldn’t fit in among today’s Democrats. It’s not so much wrong as it is a non sequitur.

For all of their faults, today’s Republicans, including the Tea Party and its firebrands like Cruz, are willing to articulate conservative principles in a way that can energize the party. If the GOP is ever to win back the White House it’s going to be under the leadership of someone who can tap into that enthusiasm, not a latter-day Eisenhower Republican. The party has already tried that course and failed several times. As much as we should venerate Dole as an elder statesman and war hero, the GOP needs to use his career as an example of what not to do more than anything else.

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Yes, Liberals Run the Government

Over the weekend, some in the mainstream press began the job of trying to resurrect the original story put out by the IRS that the targeting of conservative groups for scrutiny was the act of isolated rogue employees. The massive story attempting to unravel the confusing story of the targeting published in the New York Times yesterday not only seemed to get us back to thinking the affair was simply the product of people at the Cincinnati regional office who were “alienated” from the agency’s broader culture. It also portrayed the agents who perpetrated what almost everyone on both sides of the aisle thinks is an outrage as an underfunded, overworked band of “low-level” hard working people coping with an impossible task made necessary by conservatives trying to evade the tax laws.

The details provided by the Times investigation are interesting in that they give us a sense of the timeline of the targeting and the inadequate nature of supervision of the unit tasked with giving approval for requests by organizations for nonprofit status. But what it admittedly doesn’t do is to answer the main question that looms over the entire story: who gave the order for the targeting and who or what inspired the IRS officials to adopt such a blatantly partisan policy. It also ignores a clue toward solving this problem that Dave Weigel helpfully pointed out in Slate on Friday in his reaction to the astoundingly tone deaf performance of outgoing IRS chief Steven Miller at a congressional hearing: most of the people who work at the IRS are liberal.

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Over the weekend, some in the mainstream press began the job of trying to resurrect the original story put out by the IRS that the targeting of conservative groups for scrutiny was the act of isolated rogue employees. The massive story attempting to unravel the confusing story of the targeting published in the New York Times yesterday not only seemed to get us back to thinking the affair was simply the product of people at the Cincinnati regional office who were “alienated” from the agency’s broader culture. It also portrayed the agents who perpetrated what almost everyone on both sides of the aisle thinks is an outrage as an underfunded, overworked band of “low-level” hard working people coping with an impossible task made necessary by conservatives trying to evade the tax laws.

The details provided by the Times investigation are interesting in that they give us a sense of the timeline of the targeting and the inadequate nature of supervision of the unit tasked with giving approval for requests by organizations for nonprofit status. But what it admittedly doesn’t do is to answer the main question that looms over the entire story: who gave the order for the targeting and who or what inspired the IRS officials to adopt such a blatantly partisan policy. It also ignores a clue toward solving this problem that Dave Weigel helpfully pointed out in Slate on Friday in his reaction to the astoundingly tone deaf performance of outgoing IRS chief Steven Miller at a congressional hearing: most of the people who work at the IRS are liberal.

As Weigel writes:

In theory, the civil-servant structure should make an organization less prone to an eruption of bias or of hive-mind behavior. But that’s not how it works. Liberals are more likely to enter the civil service, and to stick to it, than conservatives are. And why not? Conservatives want to shrink the size of government; Republicans have negotiated deals federally, and in the states, that slashed or froze the size of the bureaucracies. Ron Swanson aside, the public sector is no place for a libertarian.

Every single number proves this. Tim Carney has collected the campaign finance figures for IRS employees nationally and in the Cincinnati office. In the past three election cycles, IRS workers donated $247,000 to Democrats and $145,000 to Republicans. In Ohio, the number was skewed even further—75 percent to Democrats. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, around 40 percent of unionized federal employees identified as Democrats; only 27 percent identified as Republicans. State and local government employees are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has had contact with the federal bureaucracy in the last century. Yet on every news talk show discussing this scandal, liberals and Democrats have accused Republicans of politicizing the scandal. But the reality is that the political slant on the story is the product of those who created this mess, not the conservatives who have complained about it. And the people who did the targeting are part of a largely liberal bunch of civil servants that are very likely to have been influenced by the complaints being lodged about the Tea Party by the president, his party and the mainstream liberal media.

The White House is working hard to provide President Obama with what another generation would have termed “plausible deniability” about his knowledge of the scandal, and liberals are screaming bloody murder about any conservative who dares to accuse the administration of creating a culture which made such lapses inevitable. But while the president can claim he didn’t issue the order, it is another thing entirely to assert that those who did it weren’t seeking to do his will.

The Times story, like the inspector general’s report on the scandal that was made public last week, tells us what happened–but they don’t say why. That’s why the need for a more far-reaching and official investigation of the targeting, conducted with the sort of zeal that the Department of Justice normally reserves these days for the press, must follow.

The Times may have convinced itself that the people who targeted conservatives were isolated from the culture of the rest of the agency. But does anyone really believe that the singling out of every single group with the words “Tea Party” in their names for special scrutiny was hatched in a vacuum? The very fact that, as Weigel notes, the employees of a tax collection agency are probably inclined to think ill of tax protest groups should alert us to the very real possibility that politics and partisan bias are at the heart of this activity.

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IRS Scandal Bigger Than We Thought

The initial revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups were shocking enough. The federal government’s tax collectors had singled out groups with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and subjected them to special scrutiny about requests for nonprofit status. But it turns out that parts of what we were told on Friday morning were either incomplete or not true.

First of all, we were initially given the impression this was an isolated case of an obscure regional office gone rogue. We now know the reason why these requests originated from Ohio was because that is where the agency had concentrated all of their work on monitoring the granting of 501(c)4 status requests.

We were given the impression on Friday that Washington was cracking down on the problem when it was found out. But we now know the IRS leadership knew about the scandal as far back as 2010. Far worse than that, today the Washington Post reveals that it wasn’t just those Cincinnati-based employees who were thrown under the bus on Friday that were responsible for these outrages:

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.

In other words, the decision to target conservatives was taken at a far higher level than one regional office. It has all the signs of being an agency-wide policy and it is reasonable to assume that someone close to the top of the IRS had a hand in it. The real question those who will be tasked with unraveling this mess is not just who gave the order at the IRS, but why.

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The initial revelations about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups were shocking enough. The federal government’s tax collectors had singled out groups with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names and subjected them to special scrutiny about requests for nonprofit status. But it turns out that parts of what we were told on Friday morning were either incomplete or not true.

First of all, we were initially given the impression this was an isolated case of an obscure regional office gone rogue. We now know the reason why these requests originated from Ohio was because that is where the agency had concentrated all of their work on monitoring the granting of 501(c)4 status requests.

We were given the impression on Friday that Washington was cracking down on the problem when it was found out. But we now know the IRS leadership knew about the scandal as far back as 2010. Far worse than that, today the Washington Post reveals that it wasn’t just those Cincinnati-based employees who were thrown under the bus on Friday that were responsible for these outrages:

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

IRS employees in Cincinnati told conservatives seeking the status of “social welfare” groups that a task force in Washington was overseeing their applications, according to interviews with the activists.

In other words, the decision to target conservatives was taken at a far higher level than one regional office. It has all the signs of being an agency-wide policy and it is reasonable to assume that someone close to the top of the IRS had a hand in it. The real question those who will be tasked with unraveling this mess is not just who gave the order at the IRS, but why.

Let’s specify that as of this moment there is no evidence that anyone in the White House whispered in the ears of IRS employees to make life difficult for their political opponents or even those who didn’t like the way the country was being run (another key indicator for special IRS treatment). Nor do we yet know if someone at the Treasury Department, to which the IRS reports, did anything like that.

And yet there is the plain fact that in the lead-up to the 2012 election cycle, what we are now coming to see as a broad cross-section of IRS personnel employed policy decisions which were specifically geared to hinder the efforts of those who were opposed to the administration. We know that the leadership of the organization knew about it at the start of the 2012 campaign. And we know that this only was revealed to the public six months after President Obama was safely re-elected.

We also know that the politicization of the IRS wasn’t limited to the Tea Party and like-minded groups. As our John Podhoretz pointed out on Friday, COMMENTARY magazine was singled out for unfair scrutiny. And, as Lori Lowenthal Marcus wrote in the Jewish Press, Z Street, a pro-Israel organization that she headed, had the screws put to it in 2010 when it applied for nonprofit status. As Marcus wrote, her group was specifically asked about its opposition to the administration’s policies.

It was appropriate to hear President Obama condemn politicization of the IRS at his press conference yesterday (though it was troubling that he did so while speaking as if it was unproved when the IRS had already admitted that it was true), and good to know that even most liberal columnists and Democrats have now conceded the agency’s behavior was wrong.

However, it strains credibility to believe that widespread abuse of the powers of the IRS was solely the work of a few tax geeks with civil service jobs. Maybe it is possible that an agency that is supposed to be above politics could be perverted in this manner without someone linked to the administration’s political apparatus having had some sort of role in it. Perhaps it was just a case of IRS staff reading the New York Times editorial page and taking their calls for a crackdown on conservatives to heart. But that is what investigators should find out.

Generic condemnations of this egregious and politically biased abuse of power aren’t good enough. We need to find out who gave the order and who knew that this order was given. An administration that has treated the constitutional rights of its opponents as unworthy of respect had better be prepared to finally start telling the truth.

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Asking the Wrong Questions About the IRS

For anyone wondering what liberal elites really think about the IRS scandal, the front page of today’s New York Times gave us the answer. After burying the story inside over the weekend, the headline on the front page screamed the fears of the media establishment: “IRS Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On.” The story gives the latest updates on the controversy in which conservative groups were targeted for scrutiny, including the troubling time line about knowledge of the abuses by top leaders of the IRS which gives the lie to their assurances to Congress in 2012 that no such abuses were going on. It also points out that the special treatment was not limited to organizations with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names but extended to those who didn’t like the way the country was being run.

Virtually no one is defending the IRS this morning, but most mainstream commentary on it is stressing that to date there has been no link established between the White House or top Obama administration figures and this scandal. That is true, but as angry as citizens should be about what the tax agency has done, few are asking the crucial questions about it: why did it happen? How is it possible that what amounts to a political purge of conservatives from the roll of tax-exempt organizations was undertaken by what we are told was only a bunch of low-level civil servants in an office in Cincinnati? Can anyone truly believe that a decision to target conservatives and those who were unhappy with a government led by a liberal Democrat was simply a spontaneous event with no political guidance or input?

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For anyone wondering what liberal elites really think about the IRS scandal, the front page of today’s New York Times gave us the answer. After burying the story inside over the weekend, the headline on the front page screamed the fears of the media establishment: “IRS Focus on Conservatives Gives GOP an Issue to Seize On.” The story gives the latest updates on the controversy in which conservative groups were targeted for scrutiny, including the troubling time line about knowledge of the abuses by top leaders of the IRS which gives the lie to their assurances to Congress in 2012 that no such abuses were going on. It also points out that the special treatment was not limited to organizations with the words “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names but extended to those who didn’t like the way the country was being run.

Virtually no one is defending the IRS this morning, but most mainstream commentary on it is stressing that to date there has been no link established between the White House or top Obama administration figures and this scandal. That is true, but as angry as citizens should be about what the tax agency has done, few are asking the crucial questions about it: why did it happen? How is it possible that what amounts to a political purge of conservatives from the roll of tax-exempt organizations was undertaken by what we are told was only a bunch of low-level civil servants in an office in Cincinnati? Can anyone truly believe that a decision to target conservatives and those who were unhappy with a government led by a liberal Democrat was simply a spontaneous event with no political guidance or input?

As I noted yesterday, the damning nature of these investigations has put liberals in a position where they have been forced to join conservative condemnations of the IRS, though it is interesting to note that one exception to that rule is the Times editorial page, which curiously has yet to respond to the scandal in the three days since it broke. No doubt their editorial board, which endorsed a regime of politicized IRS scrutiny against Tea Partiers in March 2012, is pondering how to square their past stand with what even liberal ideologues understand is the need to distance themselves from an embarrassing mistake by the government.

The key to the scandal is to be found in that dilemma. As today’s Times news story points out:

The I.R.S. has been under pressure from Democrats and campaign finance watchdogs for some time to crack down on abuse of the 501(c)4 tax exemption, which is supposed to go to organizations primarily promoting “social welfare” but which is routinely granted to overt political advocacy groups with little or no social welfare work.

It is true that there may be some who seek tax-exempt status that didn’t deserve it. But the notion that this species of organization is to be found only on the right rather than across the spectrum is an idea that was nurtured by liberal elites. The IRS policy was rooted in a belief that such conservatives are beyond the pale of acceptable opinion and that there was something illegitimate about disagreement with President Obama’s policies or distrust of government. The president articulated this point of view last week only days before the government gave us even more reason to worry about his program to expand its power.

What must follow is a thorough investigation of these abuses. We already know that the chief liberal media organ in the country was urging the IRS to behave in this manner. We also need to learn whether, despite denials, someone within the administration whispered in the ears of IRS personnel about this topic.

In the meantime, the left would be foolish to think President Obama can survive this scandal unscathed by their attempt to frame this story, as the Times did this morning, as just a tool for Republicans to attack the administration.

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Note to President Obama: IRS Scandal Is Why We Distrust Government

While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

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While almost all liberals and Democrats are still in denial about the implications of the Benghazi scandal, none of them is choosing to defend the IRS officials who targeted Tea Party groups for investigations that would deny them tax-exempt status. Like the White House, the chattering classes are united in decrying the blatantly illegal actions by what we are told were just low-level IRS employees. But the universal condemnation of these acts doesn’t mean that this administration can shrug this story off as easily as that. The IRS investigations aren’t merely a chilling abuse of power. They go straight to the heart of conservative distrust of Barack Obama’s worldview.

Seven days ago, President Obama went to the Ohio State University to give a commencement address during which he heaped scorn on those who oppose his efforts to expand the power of government:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.

But the problem here is not just that a branch of that government has been caught using their almost unlimited power to harass political opponents of the president. It is, as Ross Douthat points out today in the New York Times, that the president and his cheerleaders in the press have spent the last three years demonizing those targeted by the IRS. There was, of course, one element to his indictment of this mentality that he left out: That his own newspaper had actually editorialized in favor of this harassment in March of 2012.

As John Podhoretz wrote here on Friday, groups with the words “Tea Party” and “Patriot” aren’t the only ones that have been singled out for suspiciously political investigations during the last four years. COMMENTARY magazine was given the business in this manner in 2009, and who knows how many others may have gotten the same treatment?

While the orders to the IRS might not be able to be traced directly back to the president, there’s no doubt the officials that took these steps were acting in the spirit of the president’s efforts to treat those who are his critics as being out of the American mainstream.

As I wrote on Monday:

The fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What I didn’t know on Monday was that the government headed by the president was about to provide us with an egregious example of exactly why Americans should distrust their government. There is a long and dishonorable tradition of using the IRS to target political opponents of the party in power. Such actions were cited in the articles of impeachment of Richard Nixon and it is well known that Franklin Roosevelt played the same game with impunity against those on his own enemy’s list.

But while Nixon and Roosevelt simply went after specific political foes, what we have seen under Obama is an effort to brand all those who question his philosophy as being somehow beyond the pale of decent society. Under those circumstances why wouldn’t government officials and administrators, whom reports now tell us today knew about these abuses as long ago as 2011 and which may go deeper than initially thought, think nothing of putting the screws to those who believe the president has exceeded his powers?

I’ve no doubt that Congress will investigate this scandal with a bipartisan will that so far is lacking on Benghazi. That will probably result in heads rolling at the IRS. But the problem goes far deeper than the misguided unfortunates who listened to the president’s rhetoric and drew the logical conclusions.

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Citizenship and Obama’s Opposition

In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

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In a sign that President Obama has shifted tactics as he heads into the lame duck period of his administration, his audience was treated to an approving quotation of his predecessor during the course of his commencement address delivered yesterday at the Ohio State University. The quote was from Bush’s own OSU graduation speech in 2002 at which he said the country “needs full time citizens” rather than “spectators and occasional voters.” It’s a timeless message in any democracy, but while most of Obama’s remarks struck a similarly anodyne tone, within it was a full-throated defense of government that deserves some unpacking.

At the heart of his address was an attack on the idea that “government is the source of our problems.” In response to this stereotypical straw man, Obama said the answer to such sentiments is a defense of collective action. Reading between the lines, it’s easy to see the president’s agenda is to blame conservatives who are suspicious of big government for the dysfunction in Washington and to claim they are the obstacle to the grand liberal project of “rebuild[ing] a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.” But while any call for more participation in our democratic process is to be welcomed, calling his conservative critics “cynics” who are impeding progress misreads the intent of the Founders he cites. They created a system designed to place curbs on the ambitions of politicians like Barack Obama. If contemporary Americans are suspicious of his big government projects, they are acting in the spirit of those who wrote our Constitution, not as self-interested elites trying to harm the people.

Here’s the key passage from the president’s address:

Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

We have never been a people who place all of our faith in government to solve our problems; we shouldn’t want to. But we don’t think the government is the source of all our problems, either. Because we understand that this democracy is ours. And as citizens, we understand that it’s not about what America can do for us; it’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but absolutely necessary work of self-government. And, Class of 2013, you have to be involved in that process.

The founders trusted us with this awesome authority. We should trust ourselves with it, too. Because when we don’t, when we turn away and get discouraged and cynical, and abdicate that authority, we grant our silent consent to someone who will gladly claim it. That’s how we end up with lobbyists who set the agenda; and policies detached from what middle-class families face every day; the well-connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business — and then whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.

That’s how a small minority of lawmakers get cover to defeat something the vast majority of their constituents want. That’s how our political system gets consumed by small things when we are a people called to do great things — like rebuild a middle class, and reverse the rise of inequality, and repair the deteriorating climate that threatens everything we plan to leave for our kids and our grandkids.

Class of 2013, only you can ultimately break that cycle. Only you can make sure the democracy you inherit is as good as we know it can be. But it requires your dedicated, and informed, and engaged citizenship. And that citizenship is a harder, higher road to take, but it leads to a better place. It’s how we built this country — together.

There are two big problems here.

One is the attempt to characterize opponents as people who are exploiting or fomenting cynicism about government in order to thwart majority rule for the sake of the privileged. This is the same old class warfare argument that flies in the face of claims that the president is the adult in the room while those on the other side are extremists who have debased our national discourse with attacks on his legitimacy.

More important is the notion that there is something illegitimate about fear of growing the power of government.

After all, contrary to the myth cherished by liberals that the Tea Party was a top-down affair in which a few extremist protesters were manipulated by a small group of wealthy conservatives, it was in fact a broad-based grass roots movement. Though its moment of greatest popularity may have passed, it is not the “the well connected who publicly demand that Washington stay out of their business,” but ordinary Americans who worry about higher taxes and the creation of programs like ObamaCare that expand the scope and power of government.

Just as crucial, it is the crony capitalists who donated vast sums to the president’s campaigns that we find can count on being able to “whisper in government’s ear for special treatment that you don’t get.” A president that gave us the Solyndra boondoggle and whose Cabinet is increasingly populated with billionaire bundlers like Penny Pritzker is in no position to assert that it is his opponents that are unrepresentative.

After all, the fear of tyranny Obama cited isn’t an invention of the Koch brothers or the Tea Party, it can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and most of the founders. They worried that our “experiment in self-rule” would fail specifically because of over-reaching on the part of the government or a blind obedience to the vagaries of public opinion. Our Constitution was written by men who understood that the key principle of American democracy must be a system of checks and balances that was designed to frustrate people like Obama who want to shove their big ideas about re-engineering our society and government down the throats of the voters. They placed obstacles in the path of such leaders in the form of representative government institutions that are supposed to go slow and invariably give voice to those who are more interested in holding government accountable than in growing it. Supporting this instinct isn’t cynical, nor is it a function of special interests. It is democracy in its purest and most American form.

What is most ironic about casting opponents of Obama’s agenda as seeking to thwart the will of the people is that such efforts are themselves only possible via grass roots action. The president’s message seems to be one that posits that participatory democracy is only proper if it produces results he likes, and not those—like the election of two successive Republican majorities in the House of Representatives—he doesn’t like.

What Barack Obama needs to come to terms with is that his opposition is not just a cabal of right-wing capitalists. Distrust of government is part of the DNA of American democracy. Those who are against Obama’s big government agenda constitute a significant portion of the American people and can look to the founders and the Constitution as their guide. The president can certainly seek to argue against their beliefs, but he should not do so by questioning their sincerity or dedication to the betterment of the nation any more than they should personally abuse him in this manner. If what he wants is a more involved citizenry, we applaud and concur in this appeal. But what the president must understand is that many of those who answer that call will do so in opposition to his program and can look to the original sources of American democratic principles for their inspiration.

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Will Democrats Have Their Own Tea Party?

With the help of a massive campaign contribution by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, gun control advocate Robin Kelly won the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed Jesse Jackson Jr. The result is reason for Bloomberg to crow, but any attempt to interpret the victory of a liberal candidate in an Illinois Democratic congressional primary as a harbinger of a shift in American politics is obviously a stretch. The infusion of more than $2 million into a contest to win what amounts to an urban rotten borough was simply a matter of cash and carry. The fact that Kelly’s opponent once got an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association was motivation enough for Bloomberg to get involved–but even if he hadn’t stepped in, no one who hopes to represent that district was going to be anything but liberal.

As Seth wrote yesterday, figuring out exactly what Bloomberg is up to with his donations is no easy task. But whatever direction the mayor takes, the example of his decisive intervention in a primary battle could turn out to be more influential than it might seem on the surface. Just as conservatives and Tea Party activists have helped shift the Republican Party to the right with threats of primaries funded by outside activists with deep pockets, what Bloomberg has done is to illustrate that liberals can play the same game with similarly problematic consequences for the Democratic Party.

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With the help of a massive campaign contribution by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, gun control advocate Robin Kelly won the Democratic nomination in the race to succeed Jesse Jackson Jr. The result is reason for Bloomberg to crow, but any attempt to interpret the victory of a liberal candidate in an Illinois Democratic congressional primary as a harbinger of a shift in American politics is obviously a stretch. The infusion of more than $2 million into a contest to win what amounts to an urban rotten borough was simply a matter of cash and carry. The fact that Kelly’s opponent once got an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association was motivation enough for Bloomberg to get involved–but even if he hadn’t stepped in, no one who hopes to represent that district was going to be anything but liberal.

As Seth wrote yesterday, figuring out exactly what Bloomberg is up to with his donations is no easy task. But whatever direction the mayor takes, the example of his decisive intervention in a primary battle could turn out to be more influential than it might seem on the surface. Just as conservatives and Tea Party activists have helped shift the Republican Party to the right with threats of primaries funded by outside activists with deep pockets, what Bloomberg has done is to illustrate that liberals can play the same game with similarly problematic consequences for the Democratic Party.

We’ve spent much of the months since November listening to an endless loop of pundits telling the public that the problem with the Republican Party is that conservatives hijacked it. Republicans who worry about Democrats permanently capturing the center, as well as liberals who don’t wish the party well, have joined in lamenting the influence of conservative donors and activist groups who have financed primary challenges to moderate GOP incumbents. The result is that several winnable seats have been lost by Republicans because of the primary victories of people like Christine O’Donnell and Todd Akin. Tea Partiers can answer, with justice, that establishment Republicans were beaten just as soundly as the right-wingers. But it is hard to argue with those who point out that at times the activists have prioritized ideology over electoral sense.

Democrats have looked on at this growing civil war on the right with smug satisfaction. The more the Club for Growth and other conservatives seek to target moderates while Karl Rove and his crowd counterattack, the better they like it. The prospect of the GOP being torn apart by the two factions is fueling Democratic optimism about the 2014 midterms. However, Bloomberg’s decision to turn the Jackson seat into a primary on gun legislation is a sign that Democrats are just as vulnerable to being led down the path of internecine combat as Republicans.

In the past few election cycles, the Democrats have shown greater unity than at perhaps at time in their recent history. They won back control of Congress in 2006 specifically by recruiting moderates to run in the South and the West where traditional liberals would have no chance. That’s left them with seats to defend next year in red states in which their priority must be to hew to the political center rather than to pander to their party’s base.

But if liberal activists are going to really prioritize their campaign for gun control, the result may well be that red-state Democrats who have voted with the NRA are going to be facing some well-funded primary challenges.

The reason why the president’s gun control legislation, including an assault weapons ban, has no chance even in the Democrat-controlled Senate is that many in the majority don’t wish to vote on any bill that will put them out of step with their state’s voters. That means that any trend toward primary challenges to pro-gun Democrats will not just divide their party, but hurt their chances of holding onto the seats that have enabled them to be in charge of the upper body and to gain ground in the House.

An obsession with political purity is not the sole preserve of the right. Should other liberal donors follow Bloomberg’s example and start investing in efforts to purge pro-gun Democrats, they may well be as successful in determining their party’s nominees as he was in Chicago. But when that experiment is applied to seats in competitive districts, the result will be just as disastrous for Democrats as some of the Tea Party’s victories have been for Republicans. Far from welcoming Bloomberg’s deep pockets and obsession with gun control, liberals should realize that he is showing the way toward a more Republican future.

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Much Ado About Rove

In the aftermath of their presidential election defeat, many Republicans took out their frustration on Mitt Romney and his staff. Their manifold shortcomings and mistakes, both in terms of judgment and technical gaffes, were raked over with consummate thoroughness by conservative commentators. But with Romney sensibly gone to ground (though he will break his silence this month at the annual CPAC conference) and his advisors making poor targets on their own, that got boring after a while. So with the people who determined the GOP fate in 2012 no longer such inviting targets, the spleen of some conservatives is now being vented on Karl Rove.

In the years since his masterful supervision of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, Rove has assumed a larger-than-life role in the imagination of those on both the left and the right. To the left, he was the evil genius behind every Republican victory whose fundraising prowess was the engine driving the conservative agenda. To many on the right, he became the symbol of an inside-the-Beltway GOP establishment seeking to stifle the Tea Party in order to perpetuate the go-along-to-get-along payola culture that betrayed conservative principles and empowered Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

But lately Rove has been looking more like a consultant with feet of clay than a political prince of darkness. In the last month since Rove announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, conservative critics have been denouncing him and liberals have been crowing over his supposed demise. The right has seen his effort aimed at preventing GOP outliers from losing winnable Senate and House seats as an unconscionable establishment attempt to stifle the grass roots. The left views it as a sign of Republican weakness that can’t be masked by Rove’s tactics or fundraising skills. But the idea that Rove’s moment has passed, and that his virtual defenestration from the good graces of the same people whose votes he turned out in 2000 and 2004 marks the end of era, as today’s feature in Politico seems to indicate, is overblown at best. What’s wrong here is not so much the evaluation of the consultant and talking head’s current difficulties as it is the assumption that Rove is the giant bestriding American politics whose fortunes are in some way indistinguishable from that of his party.

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In the aftermath of their presidential election defeat, many Republicans took out their frustration on Mitt Romney and his staff. Their manifold shortcomings and mistakes, both in terms of judgment and technical gaffes, were raked over with consummate thoroughness by conservative commentators. But with Romney sensibly gone to ground (though he will break his silence this month at the annual CPAC conference) and his advisors making poor targets on their own, that got boring after a while. So with the people who determined the GOP fate in 2012 no longer such inviting targets, the spleen of some conservatives is now being vented on Karl Rove.

In the years since his masterful supervision of George W. Bush’s presidential victories, Rove has assumed a larger-than-life role in the imagination of those on both the left and the right. To the left, he was the evil genius behind every Republican victory whose fundraising prowess was the engine driving the conservative agenda. To many on the right, he became the symbol of an inside-the-Beltway GOP establishment seeking to stifle the Tea Party in order to perpetuate the go-along-to-get-along payola culture that betrayed conservative principles and empowered Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

But lately Rove has been looking more like a consultant with feet of clay than a political prince of darkness. In the last month since Rove announced the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, conservative critics have been denouncing him and liberals have been crowing over his supposed demise. The right has seen his effort aimed at preventing GOP outliers from losing winnable Senate and House seats as an unconscionable establishment attempt to stifle the grass roots. The left views it as a sign of Republican weakness that can’t be masked by Rove’s tactics or fundraising skills. But the idea that Rove’s moment has passed, and that his virtual defenestration from the good graces of the same people whose votes he turned out in 2000 and 2004 marks the end of era, as today’s feature in Politico seems to indicate, is overblown at best. What’s wrong here is not so much the evaluation of the consultant and talking head’s current difficulties as it is the assumption that Rove is the giant bestriding American politics whose fortunes are in some way indistinguishable from that of his party.

Let’s specify that Rove has been an enormously successful political consultant whose guiding of George W. Bush to two presidential election wins would be enough for any mortal to dine out on for the rest of his life. Since then, he has continued to help raise large amounts of money for Republicans and his opining on the issues of the day on Fox News and in the Wall Street Journal has given him a unique status among GOP strategists and talking heads.

But the failure of many of the Republicans he backed last year in both primaries and general elections showed that he was neither infallible nor all-powerful. The spectacle he made of himself on election night when he disputed the decision of Fox News to call Ohio for President Obama (made memorable by Megyn Kelly’s long march from the studio to the office where the election nerds made the decision) linked him to Romney’s loss in a visceral way that was quite unexpected. The negative reaction of many conservatives who see his Victory Project as an establishment evil empire striking back against activists, and the way so many other mainstream GOP figures immediately distanced themselves from the idea, seemed to mark the moment when Rove ceased to be the center of GOP gravity.

But those reviling and writing off Rove need to get a better grip on reality. Just because Rove ran the last winning GOP presidential campaign and appears on Fox didn’t make him the head of the Republican Party. He may well have profited from the myth of his pervasive influence, but that didn’t make it so. Rove was and is a very big deal in American politics but he was, after all, just a consultant whose fortunes are bound to rise and fall with the candidates he backs.

Political junkies have long tended to mythologize campaign managers. But as Rove understands well, it was George W. Bush who won those elections, even if his turn-out-the-vote efforts helped make it possible. No matter how much of a genius a consultant may be or how much money he manages to raise, it is the candidates who are always the deciding factors in any political battle.

The attention paid to Rove now over his campaign to weed out people like Christine O’Donnell, Sharon Angle and Todd Akin from the party’s slates around the country is as much a matter of hype as was the glory he received after 2004. His critics are absolutely right when they point out his instinctive backing of establishment favorites has identified him with as many losers as winners. Moreover, the idea that Rove can do a better job than the Tea Party in picking prospective senators runs aground when you consider that many of his choices tanked in the last two election cycles and that winners like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz wouldn’t be in Washington if everyone had listened to him. But this proof that he isn’t really the GOP pope is not exactly a revelation. Consultants win some and they lose some. The techniques he pioneered in 2000 and 2004 are no longer the determining factors in elections, as the Obama machine proved twice since then.

Though I’m far from sanguine about the ability of his new group to steer the GOP back to control of the Senate, he doesn’t deserve the abuse he has been getting lately any more than he really merited the god-like manner with which some wrote about him in the years prior to 2012.

Whatever the state of Rove’s current fortunes, this tells us nothing about how he or the party will do in 2014 or 2016. Republicans should welcome any group, including that of Rove, aimed at helping them win elections. But that makes him just one voice among many seeking to help influence events. Liberals may want to hold onto Rove as a right-wing boogey man, but conservatives need to stop obsessing about him and the mythical establishment he represents. If they are to win again, they will need all they help they can get–even from the likes of Rove.

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SOTU Responses a 2016 Primary Preview

Political writers have come in for some not-unjustified criticism in the past few months for jumping the gun on the 2016 presidential race. With three years to go before the voters start voting and caucusing to choose the next Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, there is something to be said for keeping the horse race reporting about that long distant contest to a minimum. But on Tuesday night, it will be difficult to blame pundits for thinking ahead when two of the leading contenders for the GOP nod in 2016 will both be issuing official responses to the president’s State of the Union address. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the official Republican response to President Obama immediately following the SOTU that will be carried by all the networks. But right after that, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will give the Tea Party response to the president in a talk that will be streamed on the website of the Tea Party Express group.

The idea of a Tea Party response to both the president and the Republican Party is a relatively recent addition to the ritual of the SOTU. But whatever the virtues of offering a third perspective to an American public that barely has the patience to sit through one speech, the only rationale for having Rand Paul respond to both Obama and Rubio is that he is hoping to exploit the opportunity to burnish his reputation as the true standard-bearer for the party’s base. Since both Rubio and Paul are products of the Tea Party and have stayed true to the movement’s principles on fiscal issues, the competition for the dwindling audience interested in Republican views late on Tuesday night must be considered the first debate of the 2016 primary season.

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Political writers have come in for some not-unjustified criticism in the past few months for jumping the gun on the 2016 presidential race. With three years to go before the voters start voting and caucusing to choose the next Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, there is something to be said for keeping the horse race reporting about that long distant contest to a minimum. But on Tuesday night, it will be difficult to blame pundits for thinking ahead when two of the leading contenders for the GOP nod in 2016 will both be issuing official responses to the president’s State of the Union address. Florida Senator Marco Rubio will be delivering the official Republican response to President Obama immediately following the SOTU that will be carried by all the networks. But right after that, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will give the Tea Party response to the president in a talk that will be streamed on the website of the Tea Party Express group.

The idea of a Tea Party response to both the president and the Republican Party is a relatively recent addition to the ritual of the SOTU. But whatever the virtues of offering a third perspective to an American public that barely has the patience to sit through one speech, the only rationale for having Rand Paul respond to both Obama and Rubio is that he is hoping to exploit the opportunity to burnish his reputation as the true standard-bearer for the party’s base. Since both Rubio and Paul are products of the Tea Party and have stayed true to the movement’s principles on fiscal issues, the competition for the dwindling audience interested in Republican views late on Tuesday night must be considered the first debate of the 2016 primary season.

While the field of potential GOP presidential candidates is large and talented, Rubio and Paul are two of the most formidable. And though neither made as big a splash as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie did this week by eating a donut on the David Letterman show, with Rubio’s appearance on the cover of TIME magazine as his party’s “savior” and Paul’s foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation, the Tuesday night match-up will heighten the impression that these two have already secured places in the top tier in the 2016 contest.

Paul’s insertion of himself into the SOTU speechifying is itself a bit of stretch if you consider that the idea of a Tea Party response was supposed to symbolize an alternative to the Republican establishment. Rubio was, after all, one of the movement’s success stories since he ran as a Tea Party insurgent against an establishment Republican in the 2010 Florida Senate primary and has stayed true to its credo by bucking the GOP leadership and voting against the fiscal cliff deal crafted by party leaders with Vice President Biden last month.

The main differences between Rubio and Paul are not on the spending and taxing issues that created the Tea Party in 2009 and 2010 in response to the Obama administration’s stimulus boondoggle and ObamaCare. They are instead about foreign policy. Rubio is an advocate of a strong defense and a robust pursuit of U.S. interests, including fighting the war on Islamist terrorists. Paul is moving away from the radical isolationism of his father to, as he stated in his Heritage speech, a stance that positions him as the candidate of the old GOP establishment “realists” that staffed the administration of the first President George Bush.

Paul is, as the New York Times reported today, the man who has inherited his father’s libertarian followers even as he also has tried to morph into a figure that the mainstream of the party can live with. That leaves plenty of room for disagreement with Rubio on issues where the latter is closer to mainstream Republicans, such as foreign policy issues like the alliance with Israel.

But the main differences between Rubio and Paul are about the latter’s appetite for massive cuts to the military via the sequester and military assistance to Israel (which Paul still opposes). On economic issues and entitlement reform as well as social issues and gun control, there isn’t much to choose between them. All of which leads us to wonder what exactly is the point of allowing Rand Paul to pose as the alternative to the official GOP response being delivered by a Tea Party stalwart except to highlight the personal rivalry between the two men.

We’ve a long way to go until the next presidential election, but no one should doubt that Tuesday night is the unofficial start to the 2016 race.

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Focus on Ideas, Not Just the Candidates

Some on the right are unhappy about the news that a group of major Republican donors led by former Bush strategist Karl Rove is organizing an effort called the Conservative Victory Project to fund mainstream candidates running against extremists in GOP primaries. According to Politico, leaders of the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund weren’t impressed by the prospect of party heavy-hitters parachuting into local races and preventing right-wing outliers from losing winnable elections against vulnerable Democrats:

Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller essentially responded by pointing to the scoreboard in recent primaries in which conservative insurgents have prevailed and emerged as influential GOP leaders.

“They are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst,” Keller said of the new Crossroads group. “We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.”

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Some on the right are unhappy about the news that a group of major Republican donors led by former Bush strategist Karl Rove is organizing an effort called the Conservative Victory Project to fund mainstream candidates running against extremists in GOP primaries. According to Politico, leaders of the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund weren’t impressed by the prospect of party heavy-hitters parachuting into local races and preventing right-wing outliers from losing winnable elections against vulnerable Democrats:

Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller essentially responded by pointing to the scoreboard in recent primaries in which conservative insurgents have prevailed and emerged as influential GOP leaders.

“They are welcome to support the likes of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist and David Dewhurst,” Keller said of the new Crossroads group. “We will continue to proudly support the likes of Pat Toomey, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.”

He has a point. It’s easy to fault Tea Partiers for foisting on the GOP crackpot senatorial candidates like Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle–whose victories over more moderate candidates in Republican primaries cost the party all-but-certain wins in the last two election cycles. More to the point, Akin’s astoundingly stupid remarks about rape and abortion not only led to his defeat but helped sink Richard Mourdock in Indiana and tarnished the brand of the party everywhere. But not every insurgent is a loser, and not every establishment type is likely to win. The party’s problem is not only that it is not always easy to predict who is the better candidate but also that these top-down efforts are band-aids on a broader dilemma that must be addressed. The question is not just who should be running but what does the Republican Party stand for. The Victory Project’s Steven Law defended the initiative as nothing more than an effort to do what William F. Buckley always advocated, to pick the most conservative candidate who can win to face off against Democrats.

If, the group can in some way help prevent people like Akin, O’Donnell or Angle from winning primaries they will be doing the Republicans a service. But there is also good reason to be skeptical about the process by which this determination will be made. If this amounts to an incumbency protection plan it will only infuriate grass roots activists who will rightly resent the effort. It’s also true that sometimes, as was the case with people like Toomey and Rubio, it is not just that the insurgents are more faithful proponents of conservative ideas than their moderate rivals, but that they are also better candidates. Moreover, the prospect of national groups being able to override local sentiment in the name of victory is doubtful, as is the assumption that throwing more money at a race can determine the outcome.

The test case appears to be the upcoming 2014 race to pick a successor to retiring Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. This ought to be a great chance for a Republican pick-up but if, as appears likely, Representative Steve King wins the GOP nomination, the party may be setting itself up for another Tea Party disaster that leads to victory for the Democrats. King has a long record of incendiary remarks that his conservative fans don’t care about but which could sink him in a statewide general election. But persuading Iowa Republicans to do as Rove tells them to do will require more than an investment in campaign funds in the primary. As the party discovered to its sorrow last November, GOP moderates are also capable of losing Senate elections that seemed like sure bets.

What Republicans need is not so much a new civil war in which moderates wage war on Tea Partiers but a focus on ideas that will help the party regain its footing and confidence. If the GOP allows itself to become a loose collection of opportunists who are only capable of offering the public a faint echo of Democratic promises minus 10 or 15 percent for the sake of fiscal sense, all they will have done is to recreate the old pre-Ronald Reagan and Republican Revolution GOP that was only fit to be a polite minority. But by the same token, it cannot allow itself to be painted as only being the party of austerity. In 2014, the GOP must offer a positive vision of economic growth and defense of freedom abroad along with a sensible advocacy of entitlement reform that will save the country from impending fiscal doom.

If it can do that, then the candidates will sort themselves out. Republican winners come in all shapes and sizes — moderates as well as Tea Partiers. So do losers. But without the ideas that can swing the nation back from President Obama’s push for a revival of big government liberalism, it won’t matter whom the big donors or the activists are trying to nominate. 

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In Kentucky, Do the Interests of MoveOn and the Tea Party Really “Align”?

The sometimes contradictory nature of the grassroots conservative criticism of GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparent a few weeks ago when one conservative group began to advertise against McConnell from the right. It turned out this same group, which rates members of Congress on their dedication to conservative principles and freedom, gives McConnell a 95 percent rating.

That doesn’t mean the group isn’t free to push McConnell on the other 5 percent, or that such groups shouldn’t prioritize high-profile and symbolic fights over more mundane votes in the Senate. Indeed, there is logic to that approach. But it does show why there hasn’t been, and doesn’t appear to be, any real enthusiasm for a primary challenge to the veteran Kentucky senator, whose term is up in 2014. And a Politico story today reports on the possible Tea Party involvement in what sounds like a truly terrible idea:

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The sometimes contradictory nature of the grassroots conservative criticism of GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was apparent a few weeks ago when one conservative group began to advertise against McConnell from the right. It turned out this same group, which rates members of Congress on their dedication to conservative principles and freedom, gives McConnell a 95 percent rating.

That doesn’t mean the group isn’t free to push McConnell on the other 5 percent, or that such groups shouldn’t prioritize high-profile and symbolic fights over more mundane votes in the Senate. Indeed, there is logic to that approach. But it does show why there hasn’t been, and doesn’t appear to be, any real enthusiasm for a primary challenge to the veteran Kentucky senator, whose term is up in 2014. And a Politico story today reports on the possible Tea Party involvement in what sounds like a truly terrible idea:

Big Democratic donors, local liberal activists and a left-leaning super PAC in Kentucky are telling tea partiers that they are poised to throw financial and organizational support behind a right-wing candidate should one try to defeat the powerful GOP leader in a 2014 primary fight.

The idea: Soften up McConnell and make him vulnerable in a general election in Kentucky, where Democrats still maintain a voter registration advantage. Or better yet, in their eyes: Watch Kentucky GOP primary voters nominate the 2014 version of Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock, weak candidates who may actually lose.

“We are doing a lot of reaching out to some of the tea party folks across the state,” said Keith Rouda, a field organizer with the liberal group MoveOn and the Democratic super PAC, Progress Kentucky. “What we’re finding — at least in this stage of the race — we’re finding that our interests align. It’s unusual.”

Local Tea Party leaders are not rejecting the idea of joining forces with MoveOn to help Democrats pick the Republican general-election candidate for the seat:

Sarah Durand, president of the Louisville Tea Party, said Democratic donors and activists have told her that they’d be willing to spend seven figures in a GOP primary to help a candidate willing to challenge McConnell. Durand said the challenge for tea party groups is to recruit a candidate who wouldn’t hand the seat to the Democrats, even though, she said, tea party leaders across the state are not satisfied with McConnell’s three-decade tenure in Washington.

Red flags abound. We can start with the obvious differences between McConnell’s seat and the successful tactic Democrats employed to save Claire McCaskill by helping to elevate a Republican opponent who would go on to say something so offensive it would effectively lose two Senate seats in one year for the party. In the latter case, it was an open primary among conservatives to win the chance to challenge an unpopular incumbent Democrat. There was no incumbent Republican to knock off to win the nomination. McConnell, in contrast, is a five-term senator with good fundraising numbers; as of the September filing, he has almost $6.8 million in cash on-hand. And with a 96 percent 2010 ACU rating and an 85 percent 2011 rating he should garner plenty of support among Republicans.

Durand, the Louisville Tea Party president, was plainly apprehensive about the general-election ramifications of primarying McConnell. She should be. As the Politico story notes, Kentucky Democrats have a party registration advantage, so although the electorate is a generally conservative one, it’s not unthinkable for a Democrat to compete. McConnell’s approval ratings are above water, as are those of fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who supports McConnell’s re-election. On that note, McConnell has broadened his Tea Party support, and brought more conservative members of the party’s congressional delegation under his wing. Between conservative groups and conservative politicians in the state, McConnell has made it exceedingly difficult for his would-be opponents to build an effective electoral coalition to his right.

Kentucky Republicans would also be well advised to take a glance at their putative allies in this fight. Normally, Tea Party groups grumble about the Democrats and liberal Republicans getting to choose GOP candidates, as they believe was the case with John McCain’s nomination in 2008 with some help from open primaries and party apostates like Charlie Crist. Democratic groups like MoveOn are quite publicly trying to do the very same thing here, and simply because they believe this will make it easier to take another seat from the GOP. As Politico reports, one of the leaders of a super-PAC looking to back a primary challenge to McConnell worked for Rand Paul’s Democratic opponent in 2010.

And it should go without saying that MoveOn and other liberal political groups are not exactly champing at the bit to help strong conservative candidates–they want weak conservative candidates. Do groups that give McConnell a 95 percent rating want to roll the dice on candidates that liberal big-money groups identify as the next Todd Akin? And do they really want liberal groups picking both the Democratic and Republican candidates in the next Kentucky Senate election, against the wishes of the Tea Party senator, Rand Paul? It may be easier to sign onto it when it’s other people’s money–in this case, leftist donors’ and activists’ money–but here that seems to be an argument in favor of resisting the temptation.

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What Would Bill Buckley Do?

The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

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The Republican Party has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and is currently stuck in what may be a losing fight with Barack Obama over the budget and the debt ceiling. It also failed to take back the United States Senate in the past two election cycles because GOP primary voters chose poor candidates who were easily branded as extremists by vulnerable Democrats. This sorry situation has led to an orgy of soul searching by Republicans that has produced a raft of suggestions for how to do better in 2014 and 2016. Some of the ideas put forward for a GOP re-launch, such as a shift on immigration, are worth debating. So, too, is the notion that the party should do a better job recruiting and marketing candidates. But anyone who is trying to push the party to become a bland, and more moderate, alternative to the Democrats is selling a bill of goods.

That’s exactly what Joe Scarborough is doing in a piece published today by Politico in which he has the gall to invoke the shade of William F. Buckley on behalf of a campaign to make the GOP the sort of mushy moderate party that would embrace the 2013 version of Colin Powell. Scarborough is a former Republican congressman who has made a good living playing the cranky partner to Mika Brzezinski on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC where he spends most mornings agreeing with a roster of mostly liberal guests about how bad conservatives have become. In that guise he gives cover to liberal slanders about the Tea Party and neoconservatives while embracing the likes of Powell and Chuck Hagel. That Powell and Hagel are his kind of Republicans in spite of the fact that between the two of them they’ve cast four votes for Obama for president tells you a lot about his idea of where the party should be heading. But his attempt to dragoon the late National Review editor into this argument is particularly misleading. Far from following Buckley’s example, what Scarborough does every day on TV is a classic example of the kind of Republican that Buckley despised and fought against.

Scarborough quotes, as I have myself at times, the famous WFB dictum that conservatives must be, above all, realistic. As he often pointed out, the person to support in an election was the most conservative candidate who could win. That means when faced, as Delaware Republicans were in 2010, with a choice of a moderate in Representative Mike Castle who was a shoe-in to win a Senate seat and a wacky Tea Party outlier like Christine O’Donnell, conservatives should have backed Castle since adding another vote to the Republican caucus, even one that was not reliably conservative, was better than electing another liberal Democrat.

Were Scarborough to stick with a critique of primary voters who prefer pure conservatives to more electable and slightly more moderate GOP veterans he’d be on firm ground. But, as anyone who has heard his daily rants on MSNBC knows, he doesn’t stop there. His complaint is not so much with people like O’Donnell, Todd Akin or Sharon Angle as it is with the contemporary conservative movement. The problem with applying Buckley’s lesson to contemporary politics is that it can be misinterpreted to mean that the party must make a philosophical choice to move to the center in order to be more acceptable to the chattering classes among whom Scarborough lives and works these days. And that is exactly the sort of thing WFB couldn’t tolerate.

What Scarborough forgets to mention is that one of the major political projects of Buckley’s career was the creation of the Conservative Party in New York state. The Conservatives were in their days very much the moral equivalent of the Tea Party in that the driving force behind them was the anger that Buckley and others who agreed with him felt about Nelson Rockefeller, Jacob Javits and other moderate and liberal New York Republicans who ran the party in that state. Rockefeller and Javits were exactly the sort of people that Scarborough and Colin Powell seem to be telling the GOP to nominate. But Buckley felt that a party whose leaders were hostile to conservative principles of good governance was not worthy of support. So he backed a splinter party whose purpose was not to elect moderates but to champion conservative ideas that Republicans had abandoned.

In the short term, that didn’t help the GOP win elections in New York. But it did help transform the party into one that was willing to speak up on behalf of the ideas that Buckley believed in. The Conservatives in New York were the forerunners of the revolution that transformed the GOP from a collection of office seekers willing to stand for the Democratic Platform minus five or 10 percent into the Republican Party that elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and elected a Republican Congress in 1994.

Scarborough wants the GOP to reach out to moderates in order to win in the future. That is a reasonable suggestion, but when he says Powell must be romanced back into the party what he is calling for is an abandonment of the principles of limited government, individual freedom and strength abroad that Reagan and Buckley stood for. That is a clear path to disaster and irrelevance.

Some, though not Scarborough, have made an analogy between the efforts Buckley made to chase the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement and those who would like to do the same to the Tea Party today. But there is no comparison between the two. The Tea Party may have its share of marginal figures, but it stands for conservative principles. The Birchers were anti-Semites and outside the mainstream. As the Tea Party proved in 2010, they were a grass-roots movement that represented the views of many in the GOP base.

What Buckley taught Republicans in the 1950s when he created NR and sought to stand athwart history and say no to the advance of liberalism is that there are sometimes more important things than winning elections. The future of conservatism and the country hinges on beating the Democrats in 2014 and 2016. But returning the party to the likes of a Rockefeller or his ideological godchildren that claim to want to save the GOP from itself will not do it. If Republicans are to return to the winners’ circle it will only be as conservatives, not the sort of people who hawk the conventional wisdom of the day on MSNBC.

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Why Both Parties Failed

It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.

To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.

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It almost goes without saying that even if a deal is somehow reached today that would prevent a massive tax increase and defense cuts, the disgust of the public at the fiscal cliff hijinks that have gone on in Washington the last few weeks will outweigh the relief they feel. If the last-second talks between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell succeed in crafting a short-term compromise that enough Democrats and Republicans can live with, the country will be spared the disaster that would ensue should the scheduled across-the-board tax increases and devastating sequestration of funds for national defense be implemented. But as much as both sides have spent more time casting aspersions at each other’s motives than negotiating in good faith, there needs to be a full accounting of why this happened in the way that it did.

To say that both Republicans and Democrats have failed in this episode is stating the obvious. But each failed in different ways and an analysis of their shortcomings tells us a lot about the direction in which the country is heading.

The Republicans failed because a critical mass of the House GOP caucus believed their mandate to stop Washington’s out-of-control spending and taxing outweighed their responsibility to keep the government running properly. The Tea Partiers were right that the country has a spending problem rather than one based in taxes that were too low, and their desire to reform the entitlements that are sinking the nation in debt brought a note of sanity to the irrational nature of the way Congress usually does business. But the idea they were empowered to stand in the way of any compromise on the debt ceiling and now the fiscal cliff was just as foolish as the refusal of the other side to address the root cause of the crisis.

After their smashing victory in the 2010 midterms, conservatives were right to say they were elected to throw a monkey wrench into the government machine even if the Senate and the White House were still controlled by the Democrats. But after the people voted to keep government divided last month, there was an obligation on the part of even the most hard-core conservatives to compromise in order to keep the government afloat. They may have been faced with a negotiating partner in the president who was working to prevent a deal since he believes he benefits politically from the implementation of the fiscal cliff taxes and cuts. Yet it would be dishonest to absolve the GOP caucus from blame here, since they were unable to pass House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B compromise because many of them simply would not sign onto any tax increases of any kind.

Being right about policy does not excuse a political party from the need to keep the government functioning. In this case, that means the reforming zeal of many conservatives that is to be praised in principle prevented them from doing what needed to be done in practice to prevent today’s impending catastrophe. Though the public is wrong to blame Republicans more than Democrats for this mess, it isn’t wrong to see the GOP has having potentially sacrificed the well-being of the citizens for the sake of political purity.

As it turns out, the Democrats are guilty of almost the exact opposite sins.

Over the last year and a half, the president and his party correctly gauged the political effects of any discussion about entitlement reform. They knew doing anything to cut back on such spending would be unpopular even if many of them understood it was necessary. But rather than deal in good faith with the Republicans for a deal that would address the country’s long-term peril rather than merely a momentary shortfall, they spent this time engaging in demagoguery about the wealthy and their opponents. That was smart politics but bad public policy.

The tax increases they have been demanding will do little to fix the deficit. Indeed, they may prove entirely counterproductive since their soak-the-rich scheme will probably diminish the investments needed to produce robust growth instead of the anemic recovery we have been experiencing. Yet the only fact Democrats seemed capable of grasping was the one that told them that the public was dubious about the Republicans’ reform plans and that such ideas were unpopular.

That has left us with one party with sound economic principles but which lacked the willingness to compromise for the sake of the public good, and another with sound political instincts but a cynical view about policy that makes problem solving impossible. The Democrats’ intransigent cynicism is far more disreputable than the Republicans disregard for political reality, but put the two together and you get what we are currently seeing: a perfect storm of government dysfunction. If the long-term fiscal crisis is to be addressed it will require both parties to sober up and address their shortcomings.

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