There’s a lot of talk about the Tea Party’s “failure” in the 2012 GOP primary election. Certainly, Mitt Romney, the candidate who the right blogosphere routinely slams and who least embodies the Tea Party ethos, and Rick Santorum, a social conservative with a deal-making record, are not the candidates whom the Tea Partyers imagined would be leading the pack.
But while the candidates themselves aren’t Tea Partyers, the entire Republican Party has shifted to the right on fiscal matters. What was only a few years ago standard fare (e.g., earmarks, debt ceiling hikes) is now seen as capitulation to the spendaholic craze that has landed us $15 trillion in debt. Romney is undeniably running on a fiscally conservative message; It’s just that some Tea Partyers, egged on by the right-wing media, have decided that Romney’s embrace of conservative items on the Tea Party agenda is all an elaborate lie to get them to vote for Romney, who really yearns to rubber stamp the Obama agenda. Santorum is for the balanced-budget amendment, is in favor of implementing two tax rates for individuals (0 and 28 percent) and has adopted Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform. But he’s no good, the purists tell us, because he voted for a large highway appropriations bill in 2005 and No Child Left Behind while representing Pennsylvania in the Senate.
It’s fair to say then that the Tea Party has won over the GOP and the country more generally, shifted the political discussion in the country to debt reduction and entitlement reform and inculcated a philosophy of fiscal prudence even among more moderate lawmakers. What has “failed” is the notion that political purism is attainable, or even desirable. What has failed is the assertion that the point of politics is rhetorical firebombing rather than governance. And most clearly, what has faltered is the assumption by strident activists and bloggers that they represent the average Republican. Thankfully, a majority of Republican voters understand two things: proportion and context.
It will do no good, I’d suggest, to keep railing at Santorum for being a ”big government’ conservative, because voters understand he didn’t have a 100 percent conservative rating but nevertheless view him as a solid fiscal, social and foreign policy conservative. The anti-Romney forces assert that RomneyCare is a disqualifier. But a plurality of voters in Iowa told us they want more than anything else to beat President Obama. And the rest of his record, voters in New Hampshire are telling us, is more than conservative enough to pass muster.
Politics isn’t a 100 percent/zero percent game, no matter how loudly the political virgins whine. So if the Tea Party is a philosophy that says never compromise, never make a deal and never accept less than perfection, well then, yes, it’s a bust.
There is also, among the “Tea Party is dead” whiners on the right, a lack of appreciation for context. Santorum is being dinged for endorsing Romney in 2008. But who would the Tea Party have preferred he pick — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)? The slothful Fred Thompson? The big-spending, tax-increasing former governor of Arkansas? (If you recall, there was a last-minute push among radio talk show hosts in 2008 to support Romney — in an attempt to slow down McCain.) Likewise, a number of candidates are being bashed for having supported TARP. If you were in Congress at the time the Fed chairman and Treasury secretary were pleading for lawmakers to act to prop up the financial institutions, and the stock market was shedding hundreds of points each day, was it really the responsible thing to do nothing at all? If the Tea Party is a philosophy that says ignore context, never consider the alternatives and pretend Pennsylvania is like Kansas, then, yes, it’s a flop.
The Tea Party has had a flock of candidates to choose from who support extreme ideas (arresting judges), gimmicks (a part-time Congress) and pie-in-the-sky proposals (adopting the Chilean retirement system), but those candidates bombed when confronted by seasoned opponents. The voters didn’t want such characters. Well, the excuse goes, they had other flaws (personal) or deficits (knowledge). But good luck finding a knowledgeable, experienced and ethically sound candidate who can convince a majority or even plurality of voters that kamikaze politics is the future standard operating procedure for the GOP. Most voters have far too much common sense to buy that.
In fact, if you look at the policy proposals of the leading Republican candidates, you can see that the Tea Party movement has been hugely successful. What has failed are the screechy voices in the blogosphere, the perfectionist pundits and the burn-down-the-house (or “House”) lawmakers. There’s a difference, you know.