Rebels Without a Cause

At a debate Saturday night among the Republican candidates competing in tomorrow's U.S. Senate primary in Georgia, something interesting happened when the contenders were asked whether they plan on supporting Mitch McConnell for another term as the body's Republican leader. Three of the candidates, including front-runner David Perdue and Karen Handel, who is battling to come in second and thereby reach a runoff, gave an outright "no." Three other candidates hedged, saying they hadn't made up their minds. The only one who said "yes" was an obscure candidate who has no chance of advancing to the next round in the nomination fight.

Most voters probably couldn't care less about a question like this one. But the Georgia candidates' reactions show something important about where Republican politics are at the moment, and the strange and sometimes contradictory things GOP voters expect from their candidates—or at least what those candidates believe voters expect.

It isn't just a Tea Party-versus-establishment question. Despite having a challenge from the right in his own re-election race, McConnell hasn't done much for conservatives to be truly angry about. In fact, there probably isn't a single Republican in America who has been a larger pain in Barack Obama's backside over the last five years than Mitch McConnell. His strategy of total and complete opposition to everything Obama wants, including the unprecedented use of filibusters, has hamstrung the President and defined this era of Republican congressional inaction. Because Republicans are a minority in his chamber, unlike John Boehner he hasn't enraged conservatives by striking deals with Democrats.

But just the fact that he holds a position of institutional leadership, it seems, is enough to get Republican primary contenders to feel a need to pledge their opposition to him. You'd think that they would want to promise Republican voters that they'll be as partisan as possible, and that would mean supporting McConnell, who is not only the ultimate partisan but one of Washington's shrewdest operators. But the Tea Party ethos has infused everything within the GOP. That means that you're supposed to pose as a rebel, so independent-minded and contemptuous of existing institutions that you can't even bring yourself to support anybody to lead you, let alone someone who's been in Washington for decades, no matter what he's been doing during that time. Republican candidates think that what their primary voters want in a senator is a lone gunslinger, riding across the range dispensing cruel justice, the Legislator With No Name. So that's who'll they'll pretend to be.

This is one more example of how the spirit that animates the GOP undermines its goals. Even if all you want to do is be obstructionist and stop legislation from being passed, doing so takes more than a firm will. It takes an understanding of how Congress works, a knowledge of where the levers of power are and how to manipulate them. Sometimes that means lining up behind someone who has been doing it longer than you.

The irony of this taste for rebellion (and faux-rebellion) is that it contradicts conservatives' natural inclinations and personality traits, at least as they've been understood until now. As one group of researchers put it, "In general, liberals are more open-minded, creative, curious, and novelty seeking, whereas conservatives are more orderly, conventional, and better organized." In the past, conservatives have always valued respect for authority and the order that hierarchies bring.

But I'm guessing that Mitch McConnell isn't too troubled by the unwillingness of the Georgia candidates to pledge their support to him. He understands how the game is played, at least at the moment. Only one of them is going to get elected (or maybe none will, if Democrat Michelle Nunn can pull off a surprise victory), and they'll have to get behind somebody to be their leader. There isn't anyone in the Senate who could do it half as well as McConnell, and everybody knows it. So candidates in a primary can go ahead and bluster about how independent they are. In the end, Mitch knows they'll be following him.