I'll Catch the Next One

(AP Photo/Whitney Curtis)

Susan Klobe, right, and her husband, Wayne Klobe, of Ferguson, Mo., attend the "Gateway to November" rally hosted by the St. Louis Tea Party and Tea Party Patriots, Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010, at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. "We've got to clean house and get rid of these guys in Washington," said Susan Klobe.

If the 2012 Republican nomination race effectively has dwindled to two, what’s striking is how the Tea Party has vanished from the competition. Having virtually taken over the Republican Party two years ago, jettisoning in the process garden-variety right-wingers in order to nominate former witches, now the Tea Party is hard-pressed to identify which dog in the current hunt is theirs. Social conservative Ron Santorum and East Coast establishment Mitt Romney both are throwbacks to earlier Republican incarnations: Santorum is damned by his Senate record of earmarks and government spending, and on the issue of health-care reform that helped galvanize the Tea Party’s existence, Romney is the original sinner. Meanwhile, the two candidates closest to speaking for the Tea Party position, Congressman Ron Paul and former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, are ghosts who have not gotten the message they’re dead.  

A lot of things about politics are capricious, but caprice isn’t necessarily the same as a fluke, and few things about American politics are flukish. The Republican race hasn’t degenerated into a contest between a one-term governor haunted by a tenure his party despises and a senator who lost re-election by 18 points simply because the president of the United States is lucky. From its inception, the Tea Party was a reaction to Barack Obama’s presence in the White House. Maybe some of this honestly and sincerely was based on issues and sincere policy differences. But if “TEA” stands for “taxed enough already,” in fact the president hasn’t increased taxes on anyone; and the TARP bail-out that the Tea Party so despises was initially a bipartisan effort begun under the previous president and rejected by congressional Republicans only once they settled on the strategy of reflexively rebuffing George W. Bush’s successor on everything, including what they were once for. The incontestable point is that, as indicated by the placards at rallies depicting a Nazi Obama, the Tea Party mustered itself into being at least as much out of personal animus as out of abstract convictions.

As translated into monolithic Republican opposition in Congress, the Tea Party’s rigorous hostility to the president begat spectacular short-term success. In no small part this was because the strategy relieved the Tea Party—and the Republican House caucus that the insurgents captured in ’10 and held hostage in ’11—of the obligation to offer alternatives different from those that most of the public still blames for the ’08 financial implosion. The question this year will be whether the short-term Party-of-No gambit yields long-term triumph. The evidence otherwise grows. The paradox is that as the Tea Party has wound up without a true candidate in the 2012 Republican race, nonetheless it has utterly shaped the political landscape, and not in a way that behooves Republicans. Beyond what private calculations exist for each of them, there are two hard political reasons that Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush declined to run this year, both having to do with the Tea Party. First, none of these men believes that a Republican president is going to be running for re-election in 2016. Second, none was willing to submit to the purges and furies of what’s come to constitute in the Republican rank and file in the last three years. The Party of No has produced Candidates of No, incapable of satisfying a primary Electorate of No. 

Desperately, Republicans attempt to analogize the present race with the Democratic race of ’08 between Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton, certainly the most contentious in modern political history. But polls at the time showed that however heated allegiances had become, wistfully Democrats wondered, Why can’t we have both of them? This year, wistful Republicans ask of their candidates, Why can’t we have someone else? The answer is that Someone Else, whoever he or she is, knows better. The answer is that Someone Else sees a landscape so scorched by the fires of ideological purity that last summer Speaker John Boehner was incapable of accepting from the president a debt-ceiling deal largely in Republicans’ favor (thus doing the president a favor, though it didn’t seem that way at the time). Someone Else hears a squall so unforgiving that, when asked at a debate some months back whether any of those running would accept one dollar in tax hikes for every ten dollars in spending cuts, not a single candidate felt the political luxury of saying yes.  

The election is still eight month away—a long time. Iron-willed Republican determination to offend independents, Latinos, and women aside, the anti-Obamism engendered by the Tea Party is such that, at the moment, cooler heads must conclude the president remains at best a slight favorite to win re-election narrowly. Like all novas, however, the Tea Party already fades to black, its birth in a flash containing the inevitability of its own oblivion. 

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