The Right’s Rebirthing Pains

In the aftermath of 2008 alot of conservatives seemed almost as if the life had been completely sucked out of them. Many could be found stumbling along, unshaven, hair akimbo, mumbling, “How could this happen? How could they have elected HIM?” I exaggerate some, yet the fact is that many conservatives were utterly dejected, having worked their tails off for a Republican few could stomach fully before his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Those who just stayed home felt worse yet, wondering aloud if there were any “true” conservatives left.

Yet just a little over a year later the right seems to be energized, coming off huge electoral victories and seeing protests all around the country. In a year President Obama has united a group of voters that it took President Bush six years to disintegrate to the point where each group had its own representative in the 08 dogfight. Talk of the “Tea Party movement” has overtaken conservative circles. From the size and scope of the protests, its clear that SOMETHING is going on. Indeed, the passion is palpable–to the point where some rallies have been taken with violence. Yet the media is hoping to paint a story of emerging discord within the Tea Party. From the Politico:

After emerging out of nowhere over the summer as a seemingly potent and growing political force, the tea party movement has become embroiled in internal feuding over philosophy, strategy and money and is at risk of losing its momentum.

The grass-roots activists driving the movement have become increasingly divided on such core questions as whether to focus their efforts on shaping policy debates or elections, work on a local, regional, state or national level or closely align themselves with the Republican Party, POLITICO found in interviews with tea party organizers in Washington and across the country.

However, in digging into the matter, the Politico only comes up with two strange scenarios within local groups to point at internal discord amongst the “movement.” They also claim that groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity are jockeying for credit. This is a good point but misses the mark. These groups were around long before the Tea Party movement began. Indeed, I would argue that there’s really no Tea Party movement at all. Rather, it is just a refocusing and reawakening of the American conservative movement.

One positive part of the Tea Party movement has been a re-awakening and strengthening of local groups. We have seen mulitiple tea parties here in the Valley, and there are new people coming to groups. Although Republicans handily re-nominated three sitting supervisors, two experienced tough contests from opponents that were energized in the final weeks by a protest against local tax reassessments that took a number of cues from the tea party movement. In the Staunton Augusta Waynesboro area a group of anti-establishment Republicans have twice now packed a local Shoney‘s as people discussed issues of the day, both local and national in scope. The lesson here: decentralization can be healthy. The bigger issue, though is who will lead these people through the desert.

What has happened here is a rebranding of the conservative movement. Over the last thirty years conservative thinking has been the philosophy du jour. Yes, yes, we had eight years of Clinton–but even he practiced the infamous politics of triangulation to use conservative issues to get ahead (welfare reform, anyone?). What we have now is a head on assault that conservatives have never been used to. As I said, these organizations have existed and will continue to provide much needed resources to the overall conservative movement. What the movement is sorely in need of now, however, is a leader, just as one emerged in the late 1970s in the visage of Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing the right now is that no one will emerge as a leader, nor is there anyone serious about providing the intellectual force needed for the movement to spring from ideology to policy. It would seem right now that too many are focused on their own brand. I have no doubt of their sincerity, but right now there are too many leaders interested in scoring points on style rather than policy. Russ Douthat:

When the Republican minority needed an alternative to the Obama administration’s sweeping stimulus proposal, for instance, a number of free-market economists were ready with an answer: a payroll tax cut. It was plausible, elegant and easy to explain — but there was no Republican leader with the wit to seize on it and sell it.

You could tell the same story about regulatory reform. A slew of conservative economists and think tankers, led by the University of Chicago’s Luigi Zingales and the Manhattan Institute’s Nicole Gelinas, have been working on ways to protect free markets from a re-run of last fall’s “too big to fail” fiasco. But most Republican politicians would rather rail against bailouts that have already happened than talk about how to prevent them from happening again.

In the health care debate, too, conservative and libertarian policy thinkers have floated a number of plans to expand insurance coverage. Some are incremental and some are sweeping; some build on the existing system and some would essentially replace it. But any of them would be better than that threadbare plan House Republicans actually put forward, which would hardly expand coverage at all.

It’s not that there’s an shortage of people out there willing to take action. Indeed, even Glen Beck is moving from his role as a talker to an organizer. From the New York Times:

Glenn Beck, the popular and outspoken Fox News host, says he wants to go beyond broadcasting his opinions and start rallying his political base — formerly known as his audience — to take action.

To do so, Mr. Beck is styling himself as a political organizer. In an interview, he said he would promote voter registration drives and sponsor a series of seven conventions across the country featuring what he described as libertarian speakers.

It will be interesting to see if anything comes out of this. If Mr. Beck is able to actually start putting policy proposals, good on him. I highly doubt we’ll see Beck for, well, anything, bumperstickers any time soon (outside of those typically tounge in cheek ones found at Republican gatherings, anyways). However, it’s clear that we need to redefine ourselves. Although derided by many, the past shows that we are actually strengthened by inter-party contests. From David Broder:

But Palin has a strong point, especially when a party has as many unsettled issues as the Republicans do these days. In such a situation, primaries are the best way to test leaders and ideas. The modern Republican Party began recovering from the many defeats of the New Deal era only in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, defeated Adlai Stevenson. But before Ike could win the general election, he had to face down Robert A. Taft, the leader of the GOP congressional wing and an embodiment of conservatism. Their battle started in the New Hampshire primary and continued through bitter convention roll calls testing and finally overthrowing establishment control.

Another such fight came in 1980, after the ruin of Watergate had restored Democrats to the White House. Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush squared off, with Bush winning the first round in Iowa, and Reagan forced to defend his claim in New Hampshire and in later primaries. Without those tests, Reagan would not have been the candidate who ousted Jimmy Carter.

The task for the party and the movement writ large? Connect with the Tea Partiers on their terms, but don’t let them drive the dialogue and don’t count on them for leadership. From the New York Times:

The trick, some Republicans said, is to guide populists’ energies toward an optimistic agenda built on those themes. “If we don’t take this anger and frustration, as legitimate as I believe it is, and channel it into a good, a positive, then we won’t be successful,” said Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator from Pennsylvania.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1993 to 1997 and is a potential 2012 president candidate, cited the 1994 House elections as a model for what the party can accomplish now. In that election, he said, Republicans attracted voters who in 1992 had backed H. Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy.

“We figured out very quickly that the vast majority of them agreed with Republicans on most issues, and we courted them,” Mr. Barbour said. “We invited them to be involved and made it plain that we were interested in their views and that we shared most views. And I think the same thing would be said about the tea party leaders and activists.”

The next year will be absolutely crucial in terms of comes of the movement in the long term. What we need now more than anything is leadership. Leadership will mean not only speaking out and action but motivating people to act. Who will this person be?
Stay tuned.

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  1. November 23, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Craig,

    I see what Barbour was saying concerning the Perot voters in the 1994 elections. However, it is important to remember that some of these same voters went back to Perot in ’96.

    The GOP needs to think about its long-term future. If the GOP determines that the Tea Parties, which have been influential in shaping independent opposition to Obamacare, are not worthy of shaping the dialogue and holding leadership roles in the GOP structure, then the Republicans will have missed an opportunity.

    Furthermore, if the GOP uses and abuses the Tea Parties they are likely to be relegated to a permanent minority status. The best path for the GOP to take is to take the ideas and concepts being reflected at the Tea Parties and craft those ideas into substantive policy proposals. We have seen some of this coming from Rep. Mike Pence. Merely paying lip-service to fiscal conservatism will likely permanently lose us the libertarian vote, just as simply paying lip-service to social conservatism will lose us any chance of attaining the growing Hispanic vote. We have to preserve the equilibrium in the GOP.

    • November 23, 2009 at 5:53 pm

      Steven,

      I think you hit the nail on the head for what I was trying to say. You are correct that the GOP failed to curb the Perot voter anger in the short term by failing to deliver on the portions of the Reform Party platform (then in its nascent stages as the We The People movement) they co-opted in 1994. It also ended up having long-term implications: even though the party was hijacked and moved to the far right on social issues (against the vision that Perot had that the party would never stake out firm positions on abortion and gun control), it remained in some form through 2000, giving heed to Buchanan’s failed bid, which gave still-frustrated conservatives an outlet to vent their frustration, costing us the popular vote and nearly the electoral college. Bush in ’02 and ’04 managed to pay lip service to the coalitions just enough to eke out victories, but you’re right–it ended up being just lip service that cost us dearly when conservatives stayed home in 2006 and even a few jumped ship in 2008 to cast a protest vote.

      IDEAS are what will win this thing (that being the battle for America’s heart and soul as a liberal (in the classical sense) democratic, capitalistic Republic, not any one personality, which is what Douthat was getting to (by the way, I still need to read his book). The candidate who latches on to these ideas, articulates them clearly AND appeals to the heart and soul of the tea party movement will be the victor in 2012, in the primaries and, if Obama and the Democrats don’t put a damper on the epic political overreach they are committing as we speak, in the general.

  1. November 25, 2009 at 6:23 pm

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