Yesterday’s Republican Party primaries have produced a singular narrative: The influence of the Tea Party has waned and Establishment Republicans, poised to win rather than default on a general election battle, have regained their momentum. The narrative is wrong.
Let’s take Kentucky. There, Tea Party champion Matt Bevin ran an accident prone campaign against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell won handily. But, McConnell is no moderate, still less a liberal. He opposes all the things that liberals want and large numbers of moderate, swing voters support. He is against raising the minimum wage. He is opposed to implementing the Affordable Care Act. He resists anything that smacks of environmental protections. He opposes even common sense gun control legislation.
Whence McConnell’s reputation as a moderate? Because, at the end of a day, when he does not have the votes to prevail, he cuts the best deal he can. To Tea Party activists, this means he caves. To the rest of the world, it means that having brought his party, and sometimes the nation, to the edge of the cliff, he declines to jump over it taking his party and the nation with him. That is the measure by which we can see how extreme Republican Party politics have become: You are considered a Republican-in-name-only if you fail to jump over the cliff.
This willingness to get to the edge of the cliff in the first place is hardly a sign of moderation, and it is hardly a sign of political leadership. There has always been a place for hardball legislative tactics. They are as old as the hills. But, in a case like the debt ceiling negotiations, which happened in the light of day and not in the rooms of the Senate chamber, it was crazy even to get near the cliff. The country’s credit rating was downgraded because of this fiscal brinksmanship. It was similarly responsible to indulge the Tea Party last autumn when they shut down the government. The GOP did not pay much of a long-term political price for that folly only because the Obama administration shortly thereafter bungled the rollout of the ACA. The foolhardiness of letting Sen. Ted Cruz set the GOP’s legislative strategy did not endure as a political liability, but some of us remember McConnell’s fecklessness.
Still, compared to Bevin, McConnell was the moderate in the race. In Georgia, two very conservative Republican candidates emerged with the most votes in that state’s Senate primary, beating out still more extreme candidates like Congressman Paul “Evolution is a lie straight from the pits of hell” Broun. And, in Idaho, Congressman Mike Simpson defeated a Tea Party challenger in a tough primary battle. All this is bad news for the Democrats who would rather face candidates who were once witches, or who advocate “Second Amendment solutions,” or who speculate about “legitimate rape” during a debate. But, the fact that the candidates who prevailed are not certifiably crazy does not mean the GOP has taken a turn toward moderation.
“Everybody runs like a tea party candidate now,” Matt Kibbe, president of the Tea Party group Freedomworks, told the Washington Post yesterday. “Everybody is running against Obamacare and against overspending in Washington. It wasn’t always like that with the Republican establishment. I don’t even recognize McConnell from where he was a few years ago.”
The Tea Party’s ideas have won the day within the ranks of the GOP, even while their more flamboyant champions have been escorted off the stage. The debate within the GOP today is not about policy, but about tactics, about the degree of truculence that should be shown to the ACA, not whether or not the fact that 8 million people signed up for insurance under the terms of the ACA, and millions more gained access to Medicare, is a good thing or a bad thing. Having millions more people insured is a very good thing, unless you indulge a pathological hatred of the ACA. As a party, from top to bottom, from the Establishment wing to the Tea Party wing, that pathology has taken root.
It falls to the Democrats to beat these GOP primary winners who seem less extreme, who do not carry so much baggage, but who nonetheless have come to accept the Tea Party creed: Government is bad, government efforts to help people are misguided and unconstitutional, America is on the road to serfdom, the attacks in Benghazi were Hillary’s fault, Cliven Bundy has every right to graze his cattle on government land while his neighbors pay for that right. Oops. I guess even the most extreme elements of the GOP realized they had to abandon Mr. Bundy when he wondered if black people had it better under slavery. Funny, they did not disown him when it became obvious he was a lawless, unstable person who denied the authority of the federal government.
The nation needs two – or more – viable political parties, each capable of governing like adults. It is a very small step the GOP electorate took yesterday away from the fringe. But, until the GOP gets serious about governing, recognizing that government has a role to play in a complex modern society, the rest of us should be worried. And more than worried. People who think, as I do, that it is a good thing that the government inspects the meat we purchase at the grocery story, and that the FAA helps keep planes from colliding, and that ridding our country of air pollution is a worthwhile goal, and that getting more people affordable health insurance is an achievement not a threat to our liberty, those of us who think such thoughts need to get off our duffs and vote in November. There is much about the Democratic Party to dislike. But, so far, they do not define moderation as only getting close enough to the cliff to look over and declining to jump. As long as that is the measure of moderation in the GOP, we must hope that their more polished extremists meet with the same electoral failure as their more outlandish Tea Party cousins.