Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Murkowski’

The Tea Party Takeover of the Republican Party

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

Since the advent of the Tea Party, my conservative uncle has consistently been sending me info on how the only way for Republicans to regain and maintain power is to embrace the movement’s agenda wholeheartedly.

Based on the events of the past year, we may see that idea tested. Over the past months, Tea Party candidates have forced out an increasing number of  “establishment” GOP candidates (many of whom were nationally known) in favor of candidates whose support came in large part from the Tea Party.

The list is impressive: Robert Bennet in Utah, Trey Grayson in Kentucky, Sue Lowden in Nevada, Jane Norton in Colorado, both Charlie Crist and Bill McCollum in Florida, Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania (who was pushed out of the Republican party by Pat Toomey and the Club for Growth and then kicked out of the Democratic party by Sestak and the voters of PA),  and finally and most dramatically, Rick Lazio in New York and Mike Castle in Delaware (the only Republican that could have taken the Senate seat for the Republicans).

In other cases politicians have completely revamped their personalities, becoming more rigid and dogmatic to save themselves from Tea Party challengers. John McCain, who faced a Tea Party influenced J.D. Hayworth is the most egregious example of this. Faced with losing his seat, this American hero who prided himself on being independent and putting “Country First” is almost totally unrecognizable from the John McCain that the country knew and loved three years ago.

While McCain’s rightward shift looked like overkill, the defeat of Lisa Murkowski in Alaska by Joe Miller, shows the perils of complacency. Murkowski’s defeat by Joe Miller in Alaska seemed to come out of nowhere. While polls has shown the race tightening, not a single poll  had shown Miller even within striking distance of Murkowski and she overspent him by a 10 to 1 margin. Miller’s win was propelled by a number of influences, but what made the difference on election day was a huge increase in turnout by social conservatives who were motivated in part by a ballot measure on parental consent for abortion. These kind of unpredictable results are the kind of things that keep politicians up at night, and while it’s tempting to say that keeping politicians feet to the fire is a good thing, that’s more difficult to claim when we’re talking about the beliefs of a small minority of increasingly paranoid people (which is what Republican  primary voters have become in many states). 

There’s a debate raging around the country about whether the Tea Party Tumult will be good or bad for the Republican party’s electoral fortunes this year and going forward. It’s somewhat of a mixed bag this year, but the Tea Party has been able to take advantage of the unpopularity of the Democrats to field a slate of candidates (especially in Senate races) who seem to be faring well despite their extreme views. In other cases, the Tea Party has taken seats that were almost guaranteed Republican pickups and turned them into either dead heats (in the case of Nevada) or heavily favored Democratic seats (like Delaware).

In House races, the Tea Party should also help the Republicans since an influx of new (or newly energized) voters can swing a close election in House Districts (especially when the opposition party is as dispirited as Democratic voters have been this year).

Long term, I would be concerned about the Tea Party takeover of the party if I were a  Republican.  The country is generally center right, but there is strong support for a safety net. The Tea Party people are hard free market libertarians and many have spoken out in favor of dismantling the safety net. The country is becoming increasingly diverse and more open minded. The Tea Party led Republicans are becoming whiter, more nativist and idealize the 1950′s (a time that wasn’t always great if you were a minority or a woman).

Scapegoating immigrants and Muslims might be good short term politics in a midterm year, but if you want to see the fruits of that kind of effort, just go talk to President Pete Wilson, who rode to the presidency on his scapegoating of immigrants in the early 90′s… Oh wait, the actual results were that he is now reviled in the state and his party has almost ceased to compete statewide and struggles to elect 1/3 of the legislature each year.

While it’s interesting to talk about how this helps the fortunes of the Democratic and Republican parties, I believe that the more corrosive effect of the Tea Party will be felt when it comes to governing. As we all know from Government 101, The American political system is built around trying to limit the things that government can do. In order for something to pass, the House, Senate and President have to agree on it, and Senators have added yet another hurdle by mandating 60 votes for any significant legislation. Since it is rare for any party to control 60 votes in the Senate, this means that almost nothing can pass unless it has at least some support from both sides of the aisle.

Almost all of the great programs of the past that Americans take for granted passed in bi-partisan ways: Social Security, Medicare, Civil Rights, Environmental Protection. The passage of Health Care Reform this year is a large anomaly, and as has been pointed out by Republican David Frum, was greatly impacted (in a negative way) by Republicans refusal to lend their votes to improve the bill. The legislative deal-making that the Democrats had to go through to pass this bill without a vote to spare was a disgrace and harmed the initial popularity of the reform significantly.

More importantly, America is at a crossroads right now. We face massive debt that is a result of a combination of runaway spending and 3o years of tax cuts. As has been noted previously, taxes are now at the lowest level they have been in 5 years and spending is at it’s highest. Politicians from both sides agree that this is unsustainable. What they disagree about (or more candidly, just refuse to talk about) is how to make the changes to get us closer to balancing the budget.   In two separate articles  written this year by right-leaning economist Robert Samuleson and Obama’s former Director of OMB, Peter Orzag, both look at the consequences of trying to cut deficits by focusing solely on tax increases or by focusing solely on cutting government.    They both reach the similar conclusions: any plan that focuses solely on either revenues or spending would entail either massive tax increases or massive cuts in popular programs such as Medicare, Social Security and national defense, none of which the American people will accept.

With a deficit commission soon to report its recommendations for meaningful deficit reductions, we need pragmatic centrists that are willing to compromise and do what is good for the country more than ever. The last thing we need is a bunch of Tea Partiers who will dig their heels in and refuse to compromise, either because they want tax cuts more than they want deficit reduction, or because they have to constantly look over their shoulder at the possibility that a Tea Party challenger will defeat them in the primary election because they weren’t dogmatic enough. The Tea Party has brought energy to the Republican party, but their lasting legacy may be to bring even more gridlock to our political system.