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|Are Republicans Tea Partying While Rome Burns?|
Sep. 23rd, 2010 at 2:20 pm
On the eve of the Delaware primary, Karl Rove appeared on Fox News and lambasted Christine O’Donnell and argued that she was unelectable. Now, the media clings to the story of her nomination as an example of the self-defeating radicalism of the Tea Party. What’s more, the controversy among Republicans concerning O’Donnell’s nomination has exposed a fault-line in the Republican Party, and few political stories are juicier than the rancorous, internecine feuds of a major political party.
So what are we to make of the Tea Party’s impact on the Republican establishment?
Self-identified members of the Tea Party start from a different set of assumption. Many Tea Partiers, especially those who have traditionally voted Republican, feel like they’ve done what was good for the party for decades, and all they got in return was the Bush White House and the Republican Congress that grew government enough to make Clinton look like a rock-ribbed, fiscal conservative. From their point of view, Bush’s failures, along with those of the Republican Congress, were laid at the feet of the conservative movement. The way they see it, if they’re going to be held accountable for the fate of the Republican party, then they want a good deal more say in what it does.
Like Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, “Reality is conservative,” Tea Partiers believe that liberalism is bound to fail whether implemented by Democrats or Republicans. If there are enough liberal Republicans to force compromises on key issues of principal, then conservative policies will never prevail. Thus, they’d rather vote for a losing conservative than a winning liberal. In other words, if Delaware is going to elect a liberal, it’s best that he be a Democrat, so that the difference is clear. Besides, if being a good Republican is so important, then why do so many “moderates” launch 3rd party bids to sabotage the conservatives who beat them in the primaries (like Marshall Coleman in Virginia against Oliver North, or Lisa Murkowski or Charlie Crist)? If being a good Republican is so important, then why do so many “moderates” refuse to endorse their party’s primary winner (like Castle in Delaware)? Within this framework of reasoning, this, too, is a water-tight argument.
This is a difficult argument for traditional news outlets to communicate. According to traditional news outlets, the Tea Party represents a shrill, extremist minority with few prospects for long-term, mainstream success. Thus, when the Tea Party pushes its will upon the Republican establishment, it marginalizes the party, rendering it unpalatable to mainstream Americans. Indeed, if the traditional news outlets are correct in their assessment of the prospects of the Tea Party, then they’ve presented a water-tight argument that the Tea Party outlook is strategically self-defeating.
First, let me confess: I’m a Karl Rove Republican, a solid conservative who places a strong emphasis on what’s good for the party. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t give the Tea Party position its due.
With regard to the position I’ve outlined by traditional media, There’s not much due to give it. If you aren’t already habituated to the tired, repetitions of alarmist headlines that we’ve seen since Goldwater about how conservatives are destroying the Republican party, then a bit of history is in order:
Over the past few decades, traditional American television and print news media had grown increasingly comfortable providing covert support to far-left Democratic policies, nodding occasionally to objectivity as required to maintain plausible deniability. In 2004, the internet rendered this unfeasible in two, very short stages. First, bloggers caught Dan Rather red-handed using forged documents to influence a presidential election. Then, unaffiliated news aggregators like Drudge forced Dan Rather’s breach of ethics into the headlines, in spite of the stonewalling of major print and television news outlets — The Washington Post, which took the lead on the issue, did not report the news that Rather’s documents had been proved to be forgeries until after it had already saturated the internet for several full days, and even then it reported that Dan Rather had “allegedly” used forged documents. CBS dug in, seeking to defend its use of the documents for more than 10 days, and finally backed down nearly 2 weeks after the forgeries were exposed and a full week after other traditional news outlets picked up the story.
The outing of Dan Rather demonstrated that viable independent verification of traditional news media had transcended the realm of conservative pamphleteers and materialized in mainstream form. In response, the network news media quickly moved to address the problem. They successfully transformed themselves from a covert advocate of far-left Democratic policies into an overt advocate of far-left Democratic policies
As is often the case among those who marginalize themselves by attempting to marginalize mainstream, majoritarian positions, the left-wing media (and the ever-shrinking fraction of Americans who still trust it) have bunkered down and created an echo chamber, which is pretty much the only way that many liberals can cling to their unrealistic estimation of their own credibility. Thus, they still cite CBS News in spite of the Dan Rather scandal. They still cite The New York Times in spite of the Jason Blair scandal. They still site The Washington Post in spite of the David Weigal controversy. They pretend that JournoList didn’t demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that journalists were unethically colluding to take down and discredit conservative political figures.
Trust in traditional media news has fallen like a rock for years, with ratings and subscriptions dropping through the floor. They blame the Internet, which is correct to a point: The Internet destroyed their credibility. But people’s unwillingness to consume traditional news media is merely a symptom. The core problem is the failure to provide objective or reliable reporting.
Enter the Tea Party. The media have gone completely bonkers trying to malign, smear, and destroy the Tea Party. We haven’t seen anything like it since the prolonged smear campaign against Sarah Palin. It’s tempting to say that this time, traditional news media have bitten off more than they can chew. The truth is more pathetic than that: Like Norma Desmond, traditional news outlets still operate under the tired, but sad, delusion that they’re still relevant, that people are still watching. In fact, the world has passed them by.
In the end, the traditional news media (and those who still put stock in it) are in exactly the position that they attribute to the Tea Party: They constitute an insular, shrill, and marginal group without long-term prospects.
Karl Rove’s position is admirably pragmatic. Like me, he’s happy to see liberals elected under the Republic banner. Typically, liberal Republicans are only elected in areas where only liberals can get elected. For example, in my home state, Scott Brown won an unprecedented special election to reclaim for Republicans the seat held by Ted Kennedy and John Kennedy before that, a seat that hadn’t been held by Republicans since Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr lost it in 1952. It’s difficult to imagine that Scott Brown could have won in Massachusetts running on a Tea Party platform. If he’d have lost, Obama and Congress would have been able to pass health care reform without resort to numerous, bizarre procedural contortions. It is quite likely that the memory of these contortions has kept the health care issue alive in voters’ minds, as opposition to it has actually grown since its passage. It’s difficult to find a Democrat running for office who touts it as an accomplishment, and according to some polls, a majority of Americans now favor its repeal. Hence the obvious benefit of liberal Republicans.
Rove is entitled to ask how many Scott Browns the Tea Party will prevent from getting elected.
The Tea Party rejoinder to this is simple: Given his own outspoken critique of Christine O’Donnell, which is now being used against her (even Republicans think she’s an extremist!), how many Tea Party candidates is Rove preventing from getting elected? And why doesn’t anyone accuse the Democrats of extremism when they nominate losing candidates like Sestak in Pennsylvania? How one answers these questions determines which side of the argument you’re on.
Whatever else is the case, The Tea Party is a powerful, mainstream political force that vocally represents the outlook of a sizable number of voting Americans, and whether Christine O’Donnell wins or loses, the energy that the Tea Party movement has given to the Republican party has boosted its stature from the least evil alternative to a party of hope. Who can blame them if they want to protect this brand from dilution?