What Happened to the Party of Reagan?
They are a little strange. They’ve made a few wacky comments, held some controversial opinions, done some bizarre things, and have been shadowed by a scandal or two. They are not your father’s Republican Party. They were in your father’s Republican Party; but they were a silent and invisible minority. They are the Tea Party Candidates. The Extremists. Or, as I would describe them, the Conservatives. And suddenly, they are winning races many don’t want them to win, including Republicans.
The battle over GOP primacy being waged by conservatives and mainstream Republicans is not new, but it is news. This is especially so in the wake of Christine O’Donnell's nomination as her party’s candidate for Senate. This nomination has created a bit of a civil tussle in the party, setting Sean Hannity against Karl Rove; Rush Limbaugh against Charles Krauthammer; and Mark Levin against just about everyone, even going so far as to attack some of the writers of the Weekly Standard.
The chief argument against Ms. O’Donnell, as it is with most Tea Party candidates, is that she cannot win, at least according to those Republicans who argued against her. Charles Krauthammer, a pundit typically deified by the Right -- and rightly so -- is the chief proponent of this argument, complaining bitterly about her upset of a candidate who “was going to win,” easily picking up a seat that Krauthammer says Republicans desperately needed. “I think it's a huge mistake to jeopardize a seat in Delaware which was absolutely in the pocket, without almost any contention, and, to jeopardize it with a much weaker candidate, who may or may not win, and I think is overwhelmingly likely to lose," Krauthammer said.
DNC Chairman Tim Kaine gleefully echoes this view, pointing to O’Donnell and others, and singing merrily that Republicans have become “too extreme” to win, ignoring that O’Donnell’s opponent in the general election – as a self-described “bearded Marxist” – might be considered a bit “extreme” himself. It has become the most recent meme of the Democrats, that the Republicans being nominated nowadays are too just too, well, Republican. Of course, during the 2008 campaign one of their favorite talking points was that Bush and the Republicans in Congress weren’t Republican enough. “What happened to the party of Reagan?” they would ask. To support this argument they nominated as many candidates as they could find to appeal to voters who were wondering the same thing; candidates who were Iraq war vets, pro-gunners, even some pro-lifers, and a presidential candidate who ran on tax cuts, the war in Afghanistan, and balancing the budget. Unfortunately, this effort to appear Republican by the Dems was quickly forgotten as they started pushing the most socialist agenda in American history as soon as they were sworn in.
However, if the problem with O’Donnell is her inability to win, then why did so many of the Republican attacks against her come after she had already won or was close to winning their party’s nomination. Karl Rove’s rant against her - “I’ve met her. I wasn’t frankly impressed by her abilities as a candidate” - came while cake was still being served at her victory party. And just days before the election, after polls began showing an O’Donnell surge, The Weekly Standard tried to sabotage her campaign with a September Surprise by publishing a piece listing every charge against her they could find in a last ditch effort to make her appear unstable. The argument against Rove and The Weekly Standard is not that what they said was false, only that a) their timing was suspect, much like the revelation just days before the 2000 presidential race that Bush was once arrested on a DUI charge, and b) they were employing a double-standard. How odd is it, we ask, that Rove and the Standard are so concerned by O’Donnell’s padding of her résumé and how long it took her to pay off her student loans, still have not, said a disparaging word against the more established Senator David Vitter’s love of hookers?
If the argument against O’Donnell and other Tea Party candidates is that they cannot win, then the argument appears to be very thin. True, she may not have the bipartisan appeal of Mike Castle, but as illustrated by her website the day after her victory -- when O’Donnell asked for $750,000 in donations and raised $1.7 million instead -- she and candidates like her have an advantage pundits like Krauthammer fail to factor in when they calculate their chances of winning – enthusiasm.
Voter enthusiasm matters in elections. Enthusiastic voters for conservative candidates donate money, put up yard signs, hand out flyers, knock on doors, and, spurred on by talk radio and the blogs, are also guaranteed to show up on Election Day. Establishment candidates like Charlie Crist tend to do better in early polling than their more “extremist” rivals like Rubio, but these polls can be deceptive. They do not take into account the Democrats who say they will support them but on Election Day remain faithful to their own party. Nor do they weigh how many Republicans, when faced with the choice of voting for a candidate with whom they disagree, and a candidate for whom they can only generate tepid support, will simply stay at home. As the more recent polls in Florida indicate, support of establishment Republicans tends to be a mile wide but an inch deep.
In 2008, when voters of both parties said they wanted change, and were promised change by politicians of both parties, Republican politicians apparently didn’t mean it. Unfortunately for many of them, the voters did. Thus the Tea Parties and candidates like O’Donnell. And Republicans should be grateful, for if not for the Tea Parties’ ability to purge the party of ranks of candidates like Mike Castle who vote against conservatism nearly as often as they vote with it, then a third party would be inevitable. We’d see how electable Republicans would be then.
As a conservative who has spent his life in the northeast – NJ and NY – it occurred to me last year while I was voting for Chris Christie for governor that he was the first (and so far, only) Republican I was able to vote for in a non-presidential race who was actually pro-life. As a Republican who tends to vote the party line, I would have voted for him anyway, as I have for many liberal Republicans in the past. My philosophy is that you vote for the most conservative candidate you can, even if neither candidate is truly a conservative. But that time was different. That time I was enthusiastic.