The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker has a piece on the dilemma confronting Tea Party groups working to oust Mitch McConnell in the Kentucky Senate primary, and it should serve as a cautionary tale. The enthusiasm for primary challenges, as we’ve noted time and again, has its dramatic success stories (Marco Rubio, Mike Lee) and its less vaunted adventures (Joe Miller, Christine O’Donnell). There is no blanket rule: incumbents don’t own their seats, but sometimes attention and resources can be more strategically deployed in election years.
Additionally, primary challengers should have to earn their support just as incumbents should: calling yourself a Tea Party candidate–especially since Democrats have long since figured out how to game that system and divide the right–shouldn’t be all it takes to get votes and donations. The worst-case scenario is generally considered to be a primary challenger knocking off an “electable” (no, I’m not fond of that word either, but sometimes it does apply) candidate and then losing in the general election. It’s unclear how far Matt Bevin, the Kentuckian challenging McConnell, will get, but so far he’s been underwhelming. Last week Politico revealed that Bevin was something of a hypocrite:
Matt Bevin, who is challenging Sen. Mitch McConnell in a Republican primary, calls the 2008 federal bailout of banks and Wall Street giants “irresponsible” and says he would have opposed it as a senator.
Yet back in 2008, as an investment fund president, Bevin backed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, as well as the government takeover of troubled mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. McConnell supported TARP, and the Bevin campaign repeatedly reminds voters that the Senate minority leader calls that vote “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.”
Politico also explained that conservative groups backing Bevin seemed unshaken by the revelations. Drucker follows up with those groups, and finds they’re still in Bevin’s corner:
In email exchanges with the Washington Examiner, the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Madison Project vigorously defended Bevin’s personal integrity and conservative credentials. They denied accusations that they targeted McConnell, and continue to invest in Bevin, in an attempt to garner political power, gain attention or raise money.
“Between McConnell and Bevin, McConnell was the only one with the opportunity to prevent TARP from becoming a reality, and he enthusiastically voted for it and convinced others to follow,” Madison Project spokesman Daniel Horowitz said.
One GOP operative even tells Drucker that the groups backing Bevin are destroying their credibility the way they think the party establishment has by supporting the wrong candidates: “That stain does not come out … It’s like the NRSC endorsing Charlie Crist. It leaves a lasting impression whether that’s fair or not.”
The Crist insult is particularly timely, as the former Florida governor is now running for office as a Democrat. Regardless of the virtues of either candidate, however, it’s important that neither side lose perspective. That the Tea Party and the establishment would continue to clash was inevitable. The idea that they can’t, or shouldn’t, coexist within the same party structure is bunk.
In his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies, Samuel Huntington noted that the political party was–despite some of the Founders’ distaste for it–the “distinctive institution of the modern polity.” The other political institutions were in some way “adaptations” or “carry-overs” from earlier systems. Bureaucracies weren’t new, nor were parliaments, elections, courts, or even constitutional frameworks. Huntington allows for one possible competitor to parties as the distinctive modern political institution: federalism, though he dismisses it as not unique the way parties were. Either way, the American system had created something new.
It’s worth quoting what he says next to fully understand why the Tea Party is such an important component of American politics:
Cliques and factions exist in all political systems. So also do parties in the sense of informal groups competing with each other for power and influence. But parties in the sense of organizations are a product of modern politics. Political parties exist in the modern polity because only modern political systems require institutions to organize mass participation in politics. The political party as an organization had its forerunners in the revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The first appearance of organized political parties, however, comes in the eighteenth century in those countries where political participation was first expanded, in America and then in France. The shift, in Rudolph’s terms, from the politics of status to the politics of opinion, led to the creation of the political party as a political institution.
I am particularly fond of that phrase: “the shift … from the politics of status to the politics of opinion.” The left’s major electoral vehicle today is the Democratic Party, which has shifted from the politics of opinion back to the politics of status. If you’re related to a Kennedy, a Clinton, or a Dingell, you’re still being handed power the moment you ask for it. The Tea Party, to its great credit, does not want that replicated on the right. It isn’t just against the politics of status but it’s also representative of the politics of opinion.
But those opinions are fulfilled through the right’s manifestation of what Huntington called the distinctive institution of modern politics: the party. And the two are compatible not despite their penchant for clashing but precisely because of it. Matt Bevin has every right to challenge Mitch McConnell, and Tea Party groups have every right to support Bevin. But this particular election is shaping up to be a primary for its own sake. And the idea that a politician should be elected merely because of the Tea Party label–well, that’s the politics of status.