Much of journalism consists, G.K. Chesterton wrote, of “saying Lord Jones is dead to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” Much of political journalism last week consisted of people who have not understood the tea party since its birth saying that it’s now dead.
The loosely organized movement arose as a reaction to the reigning liberalism of 2009 and 2010, just as previous liberal moments in the mid-1960s, late 1970s and early 1990s brought about conservative backlashes. It was also, in part, a retrospective reaction by conservatives to compromises they had made during George W. Bush’s years in the White House. This, too, is a fairly normal feature of political life: Purification is always easier when your side is out of power.
And just as the intra-Democratic conflicts of the Bush years – think of the 2006 Ned Lamont-Joe Lieberman Senate primary in Connecticut, for example, itself a retrospective reaction to the party’s moderation during Bill Clinton’s administration – didn’t lead to lasting schism, so the Republican factionalism of recent years seems to be fading away.
This was predictable and, for that matter, predicted. In early 2010, Kate O’Beirne and I looked at detailed polling of tea party attitudes for the National Review. We argued that unifying the Republican Party would be easier than it was when Christian conservatives or supporters of Ross Perot joined the coalition: Unlike those earlier groups, tea party advocates already believed the same things that regular Republicans did. They basically were regular Republicans, just, if you will, more so.
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The differences between the tea party and “establishment Republicans” have largely concerned style and attitude rather than program and ideology, and these are easily finessed – especially because moods change.
That’s why tea party candidates have so far beaten only two incumbent Republican senators in primaries in the past three election cycles. Those elections unified the party in two ways. Establishment Republicans learned that they needed to sound more tea partyish. And the tea party learned something about electability: In both cases (Joe Miller over Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Richard Mourdock over Richard Lugar in Indiana), its candidate went on to lose the general election.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader whom self-proclaimed spokesmen for the tea party have loudly denounced, almost certainly won most Kentucky Republicans who consider themselves tea partiers in his re-election primary last week. Some of the denouncers are warning that McConnell will lose in November unless he gets his challenger’s tea party supporters to turn his way. Some of those supporters tell pollsters they’re so disgusted with McConnell that they’ll back his Democratic opponent. They won’t.
That’s not because the tea party movement is dead. It’s because the movement the pundits imagined – a bitter enemy of the existing, pretty conservative Republican Party – was never truly alive.