By Ken Feltman
The tea party will disappear….
– Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
As I poked around Capitol Hill before and after the president’s State of the Union, two things became clear:
+ The Republican leadership wants Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to go away.
+ Many Republicans and most Democrats do not understand the tea parties.
Both Bachmann and the tea parties are here to stay. Speaker John Boehner had a successful first few weeks. He got the Republican leadership team he wanted and kept the ambitious Bachmann out. He got good reviews in the press. Then Bachmann upstaged Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) GOP response to the State of the Union with her tea party response. Score a big point for Bachmann and the tea parties.
Suddenly, Boehner’s strategy of ignoring Bachmann is being second guessed. She is a favorite among tea partiers and a top choice to speak at fund raisers. She is sought out by the media for her willingness to be quoted on most anything, even if her statements may from time to time have uncertain factual grounding. She grabs headlines and soaks up television time. Treating Bachmann like any other junior member of the House – or as one new GOP House leader put it, as “a housewife from some suburb of St. Paul” – guarantees that her grassroots popularity will increase: The insurgents love outsiders and a photogenic outsider is all the better.
By timing Bachmann’s address to follow Ryan’s, the tea parties accomplished more than just promoting their view. They chastised Ryan, another long-time tea party favorite. Now he knows that his successful self promotion, rewarded with the chairmanship of the pivotal House budget committee, and his successful jockeying to be picked to give the GOP response to President Obama, came with a price. Symbolically, he is now seen as part of the establishment in the House – part of the problem. He has ceded his spot as an insurgent-of-choice.
The party of the tiny tent?
By refusing to bring Bachmann into the GOP leadership, Boehner created at least a distraction and perhaps an adversary – maybe even an enemy within the Republican Party. Supposedly, President Lyndon Johnson once remarked crudely but effectively that he would rather have a rival inside his tent p***ing out than outside p***ing in. Well, folks, better get her in the tent because Bachmann has a growing list of friends among the voters. That’s a lot of people feeling that they are outside the tent.
Meantime, back at the grassroots, tea party activists have begun to win leadership positions in Republican organizations. Some big names in the GOP have fallen or are endangered. Three tea party insurgents defeated organization Republicans last month and now head the Republican Parties in Arizona, New Hampshire and Washington.
When a dictatorship falls, they pull down the statues. In political parties, they pull down the inflexible leaders.
The intense publicity over 2010’s Senate contests has been replaced by out-of-view but unrelenting agitation by the tea parties at state and local levels of the GOP. When the establishment attempts to shut out the newcomers, the activists increase their intensity. Eventually, they will sweep away more and more of the orthodox.
For example, the Arizona GOP continues to drift away from its conservative, establishment base and toward a more activist, libertarian model. Interestingly, Arizona Democrats are concerned that the new direction of the state GOP will make it more difficult for moderate Democrats such as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to win. Giffords has benefited from the Republican Party’s tendency to nominate orthodox but dull right-wing conservatives. Establishment Republicans, on the other hand, are wary that Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz) might retire rather than face a tea party challenge. Kyl is a veteran establishment conservative and his retirement could open the way next year for a Democratic upset. If 2010 was the year of the tea parties, 2012 promises to be an even bigger year for the tea parties.
Two other GOP Senate icons are already at risk. Senators Richard Lugar ( R-Ind.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) looked unbeatable a few months ago. Now, both are under attack from the tea parties. Both have been so secure that they may not be capable of mounting an adequate defense.
The tea parties in Indiana recently demanded that Lugar abandon plans to run for another term. Indiana is home to two tea party favorites. GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels is considering running for president. He has achieved national recognition for his fiscal austerity and budget management skills. GOP Rep. Mike Pence, formerly a member of the House GOP leadership and rumored presidential candidate, is laying the groundwork for a run for governor. He is the early leader in polls.
In contrast, Lugar has annoyed many Hoosiers by defending earmarks and the START nuclear treaty with Russia. After Tucson, Lugar talked up reinstating the ban on assault weapons. The National Rifle Association, which had adopted a low profile in Arizona and nationally, came alive in Indiana.
Hatch seems to have been taken by surprise, which is itself a surprise and indicates how vulnerable incumbents can become as they feast on the adulation of staff, media and special interests in Washington. Utah selects candidates at party conventions. The first high-visibility victim of the tea parties in 2010 was former Utah GOP Senator Bob Bennett. He was one of the most respected members of the Senate, highly regarded by Democrats and Republicans alike, sought out by the media and viewed as an excellent legislator by academics and knowledgeable observers. Activists denied him renomination and now threaten Hatch.
Tough times for mistake-makers
Former Virginia Governor and Senator George Allen thought he had completed his penance after his disastrous “macaca” remark in 2006. That term is corrupted from the Bantu language and means monkey. Allen used it to refer to an Indian-American worker for his Democratic opponent. At the time, he was sleep-walking to reelection while organizing a run for president in 2008. Despite his outsized popularity in conservative circles, his political career collapsed amid charges of racism. Now, his former base has told him to forget a comeback. They think he is still damaged goods.
Allen has ignored the warning and already has tea party opposition for the Senate nomination. Allen starts as the front-runner but the very fact that his announcement drew opposition from past staunch supporters shows how much Republican politics has changed in five years. Then, Allen’s base was part of the GOP establishment. Today, many of those same people are part of the tea parties.
The GOP will never be the same party that Allen knew before his self-destructive epithet.
Most analysts agree that, despite some well publicized failures, the tea parties helped the Republicans much more than they hurt in 2010. Tea party volunteers gave the tired GOP a spark, vitality and enthusiasm. But they often lacked pragmatism in backing candidates, costing the GOP Senate seats – especially the Nevada seat of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
The simmering tensions between the establishment and the insurgents are out in the open. Many long-time Republican leaders feel threatened and some deny that the tea parties are an example of democracy in action. But democracy is messy. Democracy makes progress by taking a few more steps ahead than back.
Isn’t it strange that in a nation that is so proud of its democratic foundation and heritage, the political parties are among the organizations most resistant to democratic change?