The Tea Party movement can claim partial vindication for their apparently preferred strategy of infiltrating the Republican party instead of starting their own insofar as they can claim credit for bringing down an incumbent Republican U.S. Senator in Utah at the state convention. Robert Bennett seemed doomed by the runoff format of the voting as much as anything else, and in advance of the nomination Kathleen Parker, a moderate conservative who is no great friend of the TPs, published a column bemoaning their imposition of extreme ideological litmus tests on Republicans who otherwise have very respectable conservative credentials.
"Bennett earns an 84 rating from the American Conservative Union, an A ranking from the National Rifle Association — and is nothing like a liberal," Parker notes, "But Bennett committed the ultimate sin in tea party circles. He voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, aka "bank bailout," during the George W. Bush administration. And he advanced a market-driven health care reform bill as an alternative to the Democratic plan that, alas, also included an insurance mandate." For those reasons, despite endorsements from Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, delegates repudiated Bennett.
This is the latest chapter in the long debate over how conservative the Republican party should be, and an episode in a longer debate over the meaning of conservatism. I can understand why a Tea Partier might refuse to defer to the American Conservative Union, Kathleen Parker, or even the NRA when it comes to deciding whether someone's conservative enough for the times. The comments attached to Parker's column on this website for a Utah newspaper show a widespread belief that Bennett's credentialed conservatism was compromised by his being a "Washington insider." American conservatism is an amorphous concept, depending on what any individual wants to conserve, and the positions that make Bennett a satisfactory conservative to the ACU or the NRA may not matter as much to people in Utah as do the crises of the moment: TARP and bailouts, health-care mandates, etc. The Tea Parties remain in part a populist revolt against the "Too Big To Fail" principle, which Parker endorses in her column. The TPs are people who know they're not too big to fail and are unlikely to be shielded from adversity. Theirs is a leveling impulse; no one or no entity should be too big to fail, in their view, and if multitudes must suffer from the failure, the TPs expect them to learn a lesson and be better off for the ordeal. I'm not sure exactly what's conservative about this stance, but since the TPs see themselves as conservatives (meaning perhaps the people who still play by the old rules) they are determined to redefine conservative politics in America.
Parker writes for those Republicans who think that the party only needs to be conservative enough to win elections and work well with others in government. She worries that a TP purge of the GOP would result in the party "losing some of their strongest voices and diminishing their power in an arena where relationships matter," i.e. Congress. Critics of her article portray Parker as Washington insider herself whose recent Pulitzer Prize signifies her selling-out true conservatism in order to join the Establishment. Do these primary battles (there are more to come) boil down to Establishment vs. Grass Roots? Are they an effort to impose a stricter ideological orthodoxy, or are they clashes between actually different ideologies?
This should be the part where I condemn the TPs for lacking the courage to start their own party, but since they've cleared the first hurdle on the infiltration course, objectivity requires me to reserve some judgment until they face the next hurdles: winning a general election and having their new Senator represent his constituents rather than the national party organization. Infiltrationism depends on the premise that the party as an institution has no institutional mentality or institutional interests of its own that are separate from the interests of the majority of party members. The infiltrationist presumes that, as long as you win the primaries, you control the party. They reject the premise that a fundraising bureaucracy and the donors on whom they depend can dictate platforms contrary to the will of the rank-and-file. But they do accept the premise that the "Washington establishment" can corrupt the ideological integrity of politicians. We're sixteen years removed from the last conservative takeover of the GOP, and if the leader of 1994, Newt Gingrich, can endorse Sen. Bennett, that should stand as proof for TPs that something happens to ideological fire-eaters once they taste power. Some people blame that something on the permanent fundraising imperative. Others blame it on a corrupting Capitol culture. Others still might less judgmentally point out how responsibility inevitably moderates radicalism of any ideological bent. But the infiltrationist stakes much on vigilance and accountability as effective correctives against all these compromising or corrupting tendencies. That means that the success of any infiltration scheme to take over a major party depends on the infiltrators themselves. Whether today's infiltrators inside the Republican party have the determination and the punitive spirit to see things through past the first victory remains to be seen -- and remains open to doubt.