This week the Washington Post's Chris Cilizza took up the question of whether the ongoing antagonism between the Tea Party and the establishment wing of the GOP will spell doom for Republicans' chances in 2016. If the GOP is unable to raise up a nominee capable of uniting the base and the establishment, Cilizza concludes, the prospect of a Republican presidential victory is extremely poor. He is absolutely right, and the odds of the establishment GOP eschewing the status quo in favor of authentic grassroots conservatism are slim. Politics, it seems, will continue to trump principle, and the American people will continue to pay the price.
Of course, the establishment GOP doesn't view things quite in this way. Cilizza quotes Reed Galen, a Republican strategist in California as saying:
"[I]n the case of the Tea Party, their lack of central organization and strict adherence to ideology over politics makes them a potent ingredient tossed into the evolutionary soup. That the Establishment wing of the party is either unwilling or unable to co-opt them for the larger goal of winning major elections shows just how exotic an addition to the mix the Tea Party is. They won't do what you want them to unless they've already made up their mind to do it. Reasoning with them doesn't work because their starting point isn't based in rationality but passion."
Galen is half right. The GOP establishment has been unable to co-opt the Tea Party, and the Tea Party has been unwilling to take orders from the Republican powers-that-be. Galen is wrong, however, to equate a passionate adherence to principle with a lack of rationality. This is merely a rhetorical gimmick designed to undermine the growing potency of the Tea Party's message.
Tea Partiers are passionate, and for good reason! They see the fundamental principles of conservatism constantly being cast aside by those in power. They see basic principles of fiscal prudence and responsibility being abandoned, with the result that our country is headed down a path of profligacy toward bankruptcy. They see bedrock constitutional principles betrayed (federalism, delegated authority, enumerated powers) and a federal government ballooning at the expense of freedom. They see equality under the law being cast aside in favor of preferential treatment for the rich and powerful. In the face of these many egregious offenses, the Tea Party and those who identify with it are justifiably angry. They are more than angry, they are furious and they are fed up.
Cilizza quotes Mitch McConnell as forecasting the defeat of Tea Party candidates in the upcoming primaries: "I think we are going to crush [the Tea Party-aligned outside groups] everywhere. I don't think they are going to have a single nominee anywhere in the country." McConnell clearly thinks the Establishment has the upper hand, and they probably do. Money creates a lot of advantages, to be sure, but if the Republican Blue Bloods think that the Tea Party will collapse under the weight of a few lost elections they are terribly mistaken.
As difficult as it may be for "reasonable" folks like Reed Galen and Mitch McConnell to understand, the Tea Party is not guided by politics, but by principle. In fact, the Tea Party isn't really a party at all; it is a grassroots movement motivated by fidelity to the principles of fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, less government, and more freedom. Tea Party patriots are more interested in opportunities than outcomes and they don't think government should pick winners and losers. All of this flies in the face of the Beltway status quo, where money buys influence and principle is often sacrificed on the altar of self-interest. At this level, there really is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides are in the business of keeping their elite benefactors happy, it's just a matter of which side will prevail on any given day, in any given election cycle. Meanwhile, Joe Lunchbucket is left out in the cold.
The GOP establishment's campaign to diminish and intimidate the Tea Party could definitely backfire. By continuing to dismiss grassroots conservatives as an extreme, fringe movement, the GOP establishment is digging a deep hole for itself. The Party already suffers from a terrible national reputation. For all the failures and fumblings of President Obama and congressional Democrats, many people still view Republicans with a skeptical eye. Time and again, the GOP has been given the opportunity to choose principle over politics, to truly put the interests and welfare of the people first, and time and again they've betrayed the public trust. Is it any wonder more and more people are looking for an alternative?
The refreshing thing about the Tea Party movement is that it doesn't give a damn about which set of elites occupy the seats of power in Washington, D.C. For them it is all about restoring government to the people. Tea Party activists are smart, informed, tenacious, and yes, passionate. They are in it for the long haul and they are not afraid to lose a few battles in the war for America's soul. The choice lies with the GOP. They can work to bridge the growing gap between themselves and the grassroots or they can continue to posture and bury their heads in the sand. The Tea Party isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Passion undergirded by principle will take you a long way.