The Tea-Party Tempest

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.

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.


The Tea-Party Tempest