The Post’s must-read report today by Philip Rucker captures both the frustration and determination of main-street Republicans who are, to be blunt, horrified by the tea party’s tone, irresponsibility and extremism: “Nearly three years after a band of renegade congressmen brought the tea party insurgency to Washington, there are early rumblings of a political backlash in some of their districts.”
The report notes that such challenges are underway in several Michigan districts:
The races mark a notable shift in a party in which most primary challenges in recent years have come from the right.
“It’s a new dynamic, and we don’t know how far it’s going to go,” said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman who is close to the House leadership. “All the energy in the Republican Party the last few years has come from the tea party. The notion that there might be some energy from the radical center, the people whose positions in the conservative mainstream are more center-right but who are just furious about the dysfunctionality of government — that’s different.”
The pushback is also seen inside the Beltway, where tough conservatives ranging from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to anti-tax maven Grover Norquist have deplored the shutdown squad and taken on its leaders. That boiled over when Senate Republicans turned on Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) behind closed doors for having no game plan and risking chaos for personal advancement.
To those who fear that all Republicans have lost their minds, this comes as a relief, no doubt. The impetus for the pushback is both practical and philosophical.
As a practical matter, the anti-tea party objectors understand that the Republican Party can’t win the Senate and the White House while bearing the image of a zealous, destructive insurgency. Radicalism has always been an anathema to the large majority of Americans, and unlike the tea party group, their opponents don’t suffer from right-wing “bubble-wrap syndrome.” They deal with people of opposing views and objectives all the time in the world beyond Washington. They understand that all joint human endeavor requires compromise, conciliation and, yes, moderation.
Republicans in business, in their community and in their families are especially dependent on predictable, sane and, even, occasionally helpful government. They want that government to run better; they don’t want to throw sand in the wheels so the entire thing comes to a screeching halt. Unlike talk-show hosts, those whose livelihood intersects with courts, agencies and a variety of government officials and services do not relish when the government ceases to function. They rightly regard the shutdown as a total failure of governance.
And this brings us to the philosophical impetus for the tea party backlash. Whether I am talking to ordinary suburban Republican voters or business groups or respected conservative think-tankers, the reaction is the same: They are appalled. They are dismayed. You hear: “This isn’t what I signed up for.” And you hear vehement objection to shutting down the government, playing obstructionist and eschewing lawmaking for posturing.
These may be small-government conservatives, but they are not libertarians or nihilists. They are, candidly, offended by the language and the tactics of tea partyers, who they understand are not operating with a truly conservative spirit. They may not read of or even know who Edmund Burke is, but they know conservatism is about conserving what is beneficial, respecting the habits and customs of the populace and creating an orderly and effective, albeit limited, government that can protect our rights.
The Post’s report captures this divide, quoting tea-party zealot Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.): “I am moderate [because] the point of the Constitution is to moderate the government.” Ah, but he misses the other half of the constitutional picture. The Constitution divides power, embraces federalism and provides checks and balances to moderate the people in government, to ensure that radical swings instigated by a small group do not destabilize the entire country.
The latter is, in large part, the rationale for the constitutional structure we have, as Federalist Paper No. 10 noted on the topic of factions:
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. . . .
To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
The Founders understood all too well the excitability and rashness of small groups (hmm, like the all-or-nothing tea party of the 21st-century variety?):
The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.
Again, the anti-tea party Republicans don’t go around quoting the Federalist Papers, but they understand that our system abhors extremism, is designed to require cooperation and has institutions specifically designed (e.g. the Senate) to prevent radicals fueled by the passions of the day from taking the country on a joy ride.
The anti-tea party Republican faction (real-world Republicans? Kitchen-table Republicans?) is justified in its outrage and should be as determined as the tea party in organizing and instilling an ethos in as many fellow citizens as possible. They must, in short, become fiercely moderate, demand officials who exercise good judgment and be willing to fight for a responsible conservative movement that aims to reform and not smash government.