In 2011, this kind of thing may quickly become par for the course. Beyond the bare-bones tea-party agenda—rabid opposition to spending, entitlements, regulation, and the growth of government in general—what marks the movement is a temperamental aversion to deal-cutting and compromise. For Boehner and McConnell, by contrast, the nihilistic party-of-no stance of the past two years has been merely a political strategy, and one they both know (or should know) will be impossible to maintain with Republicans in control of one or both houses and the eyes and expectations of the electorate laid on them. For a reminder of the titanic difficulties they will face in coping with their party’s newly vibrant tensions, they should give a call to Newt Gingrich, whose speakership in the nineties was roiled, and eventually foiled, by internal revolt.
Gingrich, of course, might be hard to reach, given how full his schedule will be if he decides to run for president. That such a scenario now seems more likely than not speaks volumes about the effect that the tea party’s increasing mojo is having on the outlook for 2012. Traditionally, the Republican presidential-nomination process has been governed by the principle of primogeniture: The candidate who ostensibly stands next in the line of succession first assumes the status of presumptive front-runner, and then claims the mantle as his party’s standard-bearer. But with the power of a new, aggrieved, and anti-Establishment grassroots on the rise, a far more up-for-grabs process is likely to unfold.
The candidate for whom this poses the largest problem is Mitt Romney, whose second-place finish to John McCain in 2008 would normally have placed him in the pole position for 2012. Romney has spent much of the past two years quietly lining up the support of party leaders and big-time donors. Yet those time-honored steps may do him little good, and even some damage, with the constituency that may overwhelm the nominating process. And his role in enacting in Massachusetts a health-care plan with striking similarities to the one championed by President Obama—and despised by the tea-party hordes—has already emerged as a major stumbling block for his putative candidacy.
Something similar can be said, indeed, of the crop of Establishment favorites now hovering in the wings, calculating whether to make a presidential run. Mitch Daniels, the former Bush budget director and current governor of Indiana, has committed the apostasy of indicating that taxes might need to be raised some day in order to get America’s fiscal house in order. Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, worked for years as a Washington lobbyist. Hard to see either of them being embraced by the type of folks who fetishize Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul and his libertarian father, Ron.
No, the main beneficiaries of the tea party’s rise among the potential Republican candidates are Gingrich and Sarah Palin, both of whom have done much to align themselves with the populist fury on the right—and both of whom inspire a devotion on the hustings that causes most Washington insiders in the party to clutch their heads in their hands.
All of which is one reason why, for all the ills that have befallen Obama over the past twenty months, his advisers in the White House remain fairly sanguine about 2012. For even if Palin or Gingrich don’t claim the Republican nomination—an outcome that the Obamans believe, and with some justification, would lead to an epic electoral rout—the process of courting the tea party might well inflict heavy baggage on whichever more-plausible figure eventually becomes the Republican nominee. “What the Republican primaries this cycle have shown,” says one of Obama’s most senior adjutants, “is that anyone running in 2012 is going to have to pay a heavy toll to win the prize.”
Among Republicans, the costs and benefits of imposing that price are a matter of intense debate. Some see this moment as a replay of 1964, in which Barry Goldwater’s nomination led the party to a crushing defeat. But others see it more as 1980, when the influx of a new breed of highly energized grassroots conservatives, including those on the Christian right, set the party up for a period of dominance that extended for two decades. If Republicans can tame and ride the tiger, the latter analogy might just hold true. But the odds are higher that they will wind up having the beast devour them.