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The Tea-Party Tempest

All this sound and fury signifies a lot of problems for Republicans like John Boehner and Mitt Romney next year.


Illustration by Andy Friedman  

If Christine O’Donnell didn’t exist, the writers of The Daily Show would have to have invented her— after gobbling a pile of Ecstasy and falling into a collective fever dream. She has the look of an unholy hybrid of Sarah Palin and Katie Couric. She has what Karl Rove described as a “checkered background,” complete with a bubbly cameo on MTV’s Sex in the Nineties, in which she took a courageous stand against onanism.

Back in the day, she railed about “the beast of Whitewater” and called for the investigation of Bill Clinton in connection with the “murder” of Vince Foster. More recently, in explaining her opposition to stem-cell research, she claimed that “American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains.”

Even in a normal year, in other words, O’Donnell would be irresistible—a cable-news staple, the punch line of a thousand jokes, a freak-show dancing bear. But 2010, as you may have noticed, is as far from a normal year as Tribeca is from Timbuktu, and O’Donnell’s WTF victory in last week’s Republican Senate primary in Delaware has turned her into a sign and signifier of a set of combustible dynamics that are radically destabilizing American politics right now: the rise of the tea-party movement, the crisis of legitimacy of the GOP Establishment, and the hot-eyed rejection of Washington insiderism in all of its forms.

So far, the analysis of O’Donnell’s nomination and the ascendancy of her tea-party cohorts has largely been confined to their implications for the coming midterm elections. But as consequential as that question is, it’s now clear that the populist insurrection on the right will be central to shaping the contours and context of governance and politicking after the midterms right through to Election Day 2012 and possibly beyond. For Democrats and Republicans alike, the tea-party phenomenon and what it represents will present both opportunities and challenges—but the latter may prove to be most vexing for the GOP.

When it comes to the midterms, the O’Donnell upset over Mike Castle reinforced the conventional wisdom among Democrats that the tea party will be more a hindrance than a help to Republicans this fall. Late last week, I ran into DNC chairman Tim Kaine, and he cheerfully made the case that for all of the energy that the grassroots uprising has provided the GOP, it has also saddled the party with just enough unattractively extreme (and extremely unattractive) candidates to prevent the party from grabbing control of either the House or Senate. “Call me a cockeyed optimist,” he said, “but I genuinely think that we’re going to hold them both.”

Cockeyed or not, Kaine’s assessment is probably right, at least regarding the Senate. To claim a majority in the upper chamber would require the GOP to pull an inside straight, basically knocking off every vulnerable Democratic incumbent on the ballot—but many of the Republican challengers in those races have turned out to be jokers. In solid-red states such as Kentucky, Utah, and Alaska, less than optimal candidates propelled to prominence by the tea party are still likely to prevail. In Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado, however, the nuthouse-resident status of O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, and local district attorney Ken Buck (who has rebutted insinuations that he is anti-Hispanic by saying, “I vacation in Mexico, I eat Mexican food”) has turned probable GOP pickups into uphill climbs.

Of course, if the anti-Democratic swell that’s been building all year turns into a tidal wave, Republicans may seize the Senate anyway, and the outsize enthusiasm on the right has made a GOP takeover of the House a probability. But whatever the outcome in November, come 2011 the House and Senate Republican caucuses will be substantially reconfigured—transformed by the infusion of twin cadres of new members with outré agendas and nearly as much contempt for their own party’s entrenched ways as they have for Democrats.

It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. (Almost.) Both men have been fixtures on the Hill for two decades. Both are Establishmentarians to the core who have struggled to cope with their party’s more unruly and purity-focused factions. Boehner, in fact, got a mild taste of what’s in store last week, after he floated the idea that he would be open to working with the White House to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class without insisting on extending those for the richest Americans. The move could have been politically savvy, offering Republicans a way to deprive Democrats of the potent talking point that the GOP was holding middle-class tax relief “hostage” at the behest of the party’s wealthy patrons. But what did Boehner get for his trouble? Swift and forceful repudiation by the self-styled “young guns” of his caucus, including Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan.


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