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The Tea Party Loses in Mississippi

The Mississippi Republican primary last night threw another monkey wrench into the narrative about the Tea Party. Two weeks ago, when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary contest to a Tea Party opponent, the storyline was that the Tea Party is back. Now, with incumbent Senator Thad Cochran winning narrowly against Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, the establishment is back.

Did anything big change in the past two weeks? Did the meltdown in Iraq change the voting habits of the good people in Mississippi? No. National commentators, looking for a national narrative, tend to overlook local considerations and, oddly, to overlook the fact that there is a campaign afoot before the voting starts and campaigns have consequences.

In the event, the campaign in Mississippi was one of the strangest in recent memory. Campaign operatives for McDaniel were arrested for breaking in to a nursing home to take photographs of Sen. Cochran’s wife. McDaniel said he was not sure if he would have voted for federal aid to Mississippi and Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Not to be outdone, the stately, gentlemanly, even patrician incumbent Sen. Cochran recently told a roomful of supporters about his fond memories of doing “indecent” things with farm animals. Those kinds of things garner headlines.

The narrative, however, did reflect certain national tendencies. There is not that much difference ideologically between an establishment Republican and a Tea Party Republican. Sen. Cochran is not someone you could well describe as a liberal. But, the Tea Party thought he was not bombastic enough, insufficiently willing to pursue more radical legislative strategies of the kind foisted on the GOP by Sen. Ted Cruz and his ilk. But, neither man would vote for, say, stronger environmental legislation or for more money for the Affordable Care Act. The fight between the Tea Party and the establishment is now a fight about temperament.

The fight is also about the media which crave an interesting storyline and intra-party warfare is a more interesting storyline than noting the similarities between candidates. Cochran had his team of talking heads, led by former Gov. Haley Barbour, a man who is central casting’s idea of an establishment Republican. McDaniel had people like former Gov. Sarah Palin in his corner. Both Barbour and Palin are washed up politically, but the chance to go on Fox and rant must make them feel important.

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Ronald Reagan once said that in his administration, he didn’t want the right hand knowing what the far right hand was doing. It was a good line. Now, the right hand and the far right hand now what the other is doing all the time, and the friction that is created generates “news” only in the narrowest sense.  

In the initial primary voting, McDaniel narrowly beat Cochran, but neither man garnered a majority, forcing yesterday’s runoff. And, Cochran decided that instead of combating the narrative McDaniel was fashioning about him as a Washington big spender, unwilling to change the inside the Beltway approach, Cochran would own it. It turns out that when you are a ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, you are well positioned to steer a lot of federal dollars to your state. Indeed, one of the dirty secrets our Republican friends do not like to admit is that the red states tend to get far more back from the federal government than the contribute, compared to blue states like Connecticut, New York or California. And, Cochran made sure Mississippi was first to the trough time and time again. I do not have a real problem with this. Politicians that are motivated by interests as opposed to ideology are politicians better able to cut a deal. And, when you look at the indices of poverty and low social capital I a state like Mississippi, the federal government should be helping them, and not only in the wake of a hurricane.

In Colorado, voters also declined to back the candidacy of former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who wore the Tea Party label like a badge of honor alongside his long history of nativist rantings. And, in Oklahoma, Congressman James Lankford, like Cochran a ruby red conservative, beat back a Tea Party challenger in that state’s GOP Senate primary. So, the idea that the Tea Party is back in the driver’s seat fell by the wayside, which is good for the GOP and it is good for the country. Politicians who come to elected office on an extremist wave are more likely to keep riding that wave once they are sworn in. The country needs more deal makers in Congress, not more ideologues.

Democrats should not take too much delight in the Republican civil war. They have their own divisions which may be sublimated at the moment but which are obvious beneath the surface. Some Democrats, like President Obama, seem more intent on fighting the culture wars than in uniting Democrats around policies that would address income inequality. It should be obvious to everyone that Valerie Jarrett is more interested in winning a cameo in some future iteration of "Will & Grace" than she is an reaching an accommodation with organized labor, still less with the USCCB. It was the genius of Bill Clinton’s two campaigns in the 1990s to keep the focus on economic issues, not cultural ones. We can hope his wife learned that lesson as well.

The sooner the Tea Party recedes into the history books, the better for everyone. Last night was a good night for grown-ups in the GOP, for those who think politics is about more than striking a pose. Cantor’s loss is now, properly seen, as driven by local concerns and conditions, not by a meta-narrative about the establishment. I never thought I would be celebrating a Thad Cochran victory, but given the alternative, it is worth celebrating. Those wishing to pull the GOP yet further to the right lost. That is a good thing. Where are the Democrats who are willing to stand up and fight those who want to pull their party further to the left?

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