President Obama’s election in 2008, on the heels of the financial meltdown in 2007-2008, was the final straw for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. They had lost in 1992 with Bill Clinton defeating George H.W. Bush, lost in 1996 with Bob Dole, lost in 2008 with John McCain and would lose again in 2012 with Mitt Romney. The wins with George W. Bush were no major prize in 2000 and 2004 because he proved not to be a true small government social conservative.
The nominations of Dole and McCain, like Romney, were made by the Republican Party neo-conservative establishment in obedience to the William F. Buckley rule (winning elections is primary over policy; win elections first then govern). It is this approach to politics that is now rejected outright by the Tea Party, which initially arose in opposition to Obama in general, his continuation of TARP (initiated under Bush) and his economic stimulus package that resulted in the borrowing of more than $700 billion dollars.
The Tea Party is a mix of absolutist conservatives who are just as angry that Obama won the 2008 election in the first place as they are at the Republican Party that gave them Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008. Both men had defeated more authentic and pure conservative opponents in the primaries on the assertion of the Buckley rule (elect the most conservative person who can win) and they both lost.
In the 2010 midterms, Tea Party candidates won Republican primaries and defeated moderate Republicans only to lose in general elections that the Republican Party would have otherwise won with more moderate candidates, (see the election for the Senate in Delaware for example). But the Republicans did win the 2010 midterm elections based in part on the passions of the Tea Party, and in the House they elected a core of representatives that have fought the establishment republicans for actual control of the agenda ever since. In the Senate the Tea Party elected Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and libertarian Rand Paul. All three of whom have established themselves as the chief leaders of the Tea Party insurgency within the Republican Party.
These three men, along with the core of about 50 members of the House, represent the ideals and philosophies of the Goldwater conservatives (1960s), the Nixon silent majority (1970s), the Reagan social and fiscal Christian evangelical conservatives (1980s) and the Buchannan Brigade (1990s). Goldwater, Reagan and Buchannan, like the Tea Party, represented insurgencies that fought and pushed aside the traditional northeastern Buckley rule neo-conservatives within the Republican Party. These conservatives, like the man in Star Trek we discussed in the first of this series, believe that America is about the individual and the ability of the individual to control his destiny without the benevolence of a helpful federal government (even if they believed there was such a thing). These insurgencies all asserted that success belongs to the individual as does the consequences of failure. While Picard implied that “we” are all in it together, the Tea Party movement says that the “we” does not mean government involvement, what ever the “we” means.
The Tea Party is the latest insurgency of conservatives in the wake of the Goldwater (1964), Reagan (1980) and Buchannan (1992 and 1996) attempts to take control of the Republican Party and to purify it of moderate / establishment republicans. From Goldwater they are told, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” From Reagan they are taught that, “in this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem. It is time . . . to get government back within its means . . . and these will be our first priorities and on these principles there will be no compromise.” From Buchannan they are reminded, “The central organizing principle of this republic is freedom.” From all three they inherit the view that politics is not about wining elections as the primary purpose of their actions. They remember what Buchannan said in 1992, that the real battle is “for the soul of America” and in that battle mobs are turned back because they meet “force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage.” As Ted Cruz has made clear, it matters what one believes regardless of its popularity or electability.
The Tea Party is absolutist. Its leaders, Lee, Cruz and Paul are also absolutists, and like all absolutists they assert first things first. First, settle within the Republican Party the purpose, values and principles that should define the party (as asserted by Goldwater and Reagan), second, reject the Buckley rules of politics as well as the Nixon rule (in the primaries run to the right and in the general election run to the center) and then debate the techniques to achieve political goals. General elections and winning the White House comes after, not before. As Mark Levin, (chief Tea Party conservative radio talk show host), makes clear, there is very little difference between a White House that is held by Bush Republicans vs. Obama Democrats.
After three years of Tea Party politics, the establishment is beginning to fight back. In the recent November elections for the governorships of New Jersey and Virginia, Chris Christie has emerged as a possible establishment champion by proving a Republican can win with large margins in a blue state if he seeks to get things done and the Tea Party nominee in Virginia was beaten after he was somewhat abandoned by the establishment Republican Party.
But the Tea Party has announced plans on continuing its purification of the party by challenging long time conservative Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. The Tea Party has specifically focused on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. They are going to war over his sixth re-election bid in Kentucky. McConnell, in an interview, commented, “The most important election yesterday wasn’t the governor of New Jersey and it wasn’t the governor of Virginia, it was the special election for Congress in South Alabama, where a candidate who said the shutdown was a great idea, the president was born in Kenya, and that he opposed Speaker Boehner came in second.” McConnell, under attack, said the point of elections is to win and to do so you have to “run candidates that don’t scare the general public” and to do so Republicans have to “convey the impression that we could actually be responsible for governing, you can trust us—we’re adults here, we’re grown-ups.”
Obamacare, taxes and the size of government are means to ends. Although these means are what the Tea Party fights over, they are not what they are fighting about.
The Tea Party is the latest in a long line of conservative political insurgencies. It will be left to the 2014 and 2016 elections to determine if they will prevail or will become another notch in the history of conservative insurgencies in the Republican Party that failed but are remembered by subsequent insurgencies.
Dr. Arthur Garrison is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University. This piece is the work of Dr. Garrison and does not reflect the opinions or Kutztown University or its faculty, staff, students or alumni.