01 September 2010

Does America Have a Two (Tea) Party System?

Senator Murkowski of Alaska has conceded the closely-contested Republican primary to her challenger, Joe Miller, after a week of tense counting of stray ballots. While I've discussed already the extent to which Murkowski's defeat is a personal victory for Sarah Palin in her feud, the news media continues to describe the event as a major triumph for the "tea party movement." They need to be more specific.

For people with short memories, there was a schism in the movement this summer. The National Tea Party Federation expelled the Tea Party Express for its failure to repudiate spokesman Mark Williams after his briefly-infamous "Letter to Lincoln" implicitly accused the NAACP of desiring a return to slavery in the form of welfare dependence. Williams subsequently resigned from his association with the Express, but his move doesn't appear to have led to a reconciliation between the two organizations.

To be specific, then, it was the Tea Party Express, the organization that wouldn't repudiate a race-baiter and presumably endorses his view that welfare is morally equivalent to slavery, that gave Joe Miller the most support and is taking credit, along with Palin, for his narrow victory. Emboldened by success, the Express is targeting other states for intensive campaigning during the remaining primary season and the general elections this fall. Whether an Express endorsement means that Miller or any other candidate so blessed is more "conservative" or "extreme" than a run of the mill "tea party" candidate isn't perfectly clear, but in our shifting political landscape it may clarify things to keep the Express in mind as a distinct entity different by dissociation from other TPs. The Express may exploit Miller's success to assert itself as the real representative of Tea Partiers, or at least the biggest and best of Tea Parties, but for the moment the leadership if not the identity of the movement is still up for grabs. Opponents of Tea Parties and Republicans will want to emphasize the Express's disreputable recent history, at which point Miller, in his own defense, may stress a broader base of TP support. At the same time, it may prove that the Express is making claims for its role in Miller's rise that won't stand up to scrutiny. Many Alaskans who identify with the movement could have supported Miller without identifying with the Express, after all. They probably will be identified with the Express, whether they like it or not, and that may force them to identify with the Federation, whether they like that or not, in order to avoid guilt by association. However things develop, Alaska will remain someplace to watch this fall.

On a third-party note, many reports suggest that Murkowski gave up only when Alaska's Libertarian Party made it clear that they would not only refuse to give her their line for the general election, but would strongly consider giving it to Miller had he lost the Republican contest. Whether Libertarians should welcome politicians who wanted to be Republicans is up to partisans in each state to decide, I suppose, but you'd think they'd know better.

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