17 September 2010

Delaware: Tea Party vs. Big Tent

It's been amusing, given how Democrats have tried to portray Karl Rove as a secret manipulator of the Tea Party movement, to see Rove himself fulminating against the "Tea Party" candidate who scored an upset win in Delaware's Republican senatorial primary. While Rove has affirmed that, as a Republican, he'll support Christine O'Donnell in the general election, he takes his job as a political analyst for Fox News seriously enough to state openly that he considered O'Donnell the weaker candidate of the two main Republican contenders. He believes that her primary victory reduces Republican chances of taking the seat once held by Vice President Biden and now sought, in another disgusting display of dynastic politics, by Biden's son. Despite his quasi-endorsement of O'Donnell, Rove has refused to back down from his criticisms despite being criticized for them by no less an authority than Rush Limbaugh. The analyst claims that O'Donnell's record of "nutty things" she's said (she's hardline on sexual morality, having once equated masturbation with adultery) and misrepresentations of her personal history reduce her electability, but the statements I've seen attributed to her don't sound that far outside the Republican mainstream.

My first impulse was to assume that Rove was unhappy because his horse had lost to one backed by other secret or not-so-secret manipulators of the Tea Party movement. O'Donnell was endorsed during the primary campaign by the Tea Party Express (which bought ads for her), by Sarah Palin and by Senator DeMint, the self-appointed TP point man in Congress. Delaware definitely bears deeper study for its exposure of fissures within the still-inchoate national Tea Party movement, even if the primary didn't necessarily pit Delaware TPs against each other. But if Charles Krauthammer is right, Delaware was less a struggle to define the Tea Party locally than it was a desperate stand by nationally oriented Republicans against a local TP infiltration that threatens the GOP's viability as a national governing party.

In his post-primary column, Krauthammer concedes that O'Donnell's opponent, Mike Castle, was a "liberal Republican." He adds: "What do you expect from Delaware?" The obvious Tea Party answer is, "someone like us," and they had the numbers to get their wish. Krauthammer argues, however, that the national Republican party, conservative as it is, needs an "electable" (i.e. liberal) Republican in Delaware. Apologizing to the TPs all the while, Krauthammer insists that "geography matters" to the national GOP. It's one thing for TPs to nominate their own kind in places like Florida and Alaska, but "Delaware is not Kentucky [and] if Republicans want to be a national party they cannot write off the Northeast, whose Republicanism is of a distinctly moderate variety."

In Delaware, he chides Tea Partiers for holding Republicans to an impossibly high standard of conservatism. "Castle voted against Obamacare and the stimulus," he notes, but "he voted for cap-and-trade. That's batting .667. [Would TPs] rather have a Democrat who bats .000 and who might give the Democrats the 50th vote to control the Senate?"

The explicit argument is lesser-evilism: Tea Partiers should have held their noses, if necessary, and nominated Castle in order to prevent Democrats from retaining control of the Senate. The implicit argument is the "big tent" principle: in order to govern nationally, the Republican party must accommodate both rabid reactionaries and moderate conservatives like Castle, apparently along geographically segregated lines. If you live in Florida, you get a man after your own heart in Marco Rubio. In Delaware, you have to settle for Mike Castle for the sake of the national party.

Tea Partiers across the country have opted for an infiltration strategy instead of forming a new political party. Infiltration is a 50-state strategy for most of them. Even in the Northeast, as New York as well as Delaware has shown, Tea Party elements want to remake the Republican party in their own image, and they've succeeded so far in those states. In Delaware they've met resistance, even after victory, from Republicans who consider it more important for the party to win general elections, at any ideological cost, than for the party to represent the interests and ideas of its most dedicated constituents. The broader the scope of politics, the more the national party can be expected to pressure Tea Partiers to water down their brew of principles. The Republican Party and the Tea Party are not yet synonymous, Democratic claims aside. The infiltration strategy forces TPs to push for total victory within the Republican ranks or risk losing what integrity they have in order to keep the establishment's big tent standing. The establishment, represented by analysts and pundits like Rove and Krauthammer, will make the Delaware general election a crucial test, challenging the TPs and their allies to elect O'Donnell. Krauthammer has challenged Palin and DeMint personally to "make it happen," with an implicit or else hanging over their heads. He claims that he'd welcome an O'Donnell victory, and I don't doubt that, but the real story developing in Delaware is his implicit threat to Tea Partiers within the Republican Party if O'Donnell fails. The fate of the infiltration strategy nationwide may be decided in Delaware this November.

1 comment:

dmarks said...

Not sure I would leave the "Rabid" label off Castle, who voted for the extreme "tax them to smithereens" cap-and-trade.

He was in office in the 1970s, right? I wonder if he would have voted for a tax to combat global cooling, which was a big deal then.