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The Tea Party’s Coming Rorschach Moment

Mitch McConnell and other establishment figures are conceding a key premise of the Tea Party’s complaint: that the Republican status quo is unacceptable.


With his renomination this week, prepare for a slew of “how Mitch McConnell crushed the Tea Party” pieces over the next few days. Here’s a good one from Peter Hamby. But the story reads less like a crushing than a co-opting: not just in tropes like coming out on stage brandishing a musket, but in McConnell’s hires, issue framing, and language. McConnell won by carefully eliminating the likelihood of a Rand Paul-backed opponent within his state. For all the talk about Tea Party prowess in primaries, they really have not beaten many incumbents – and the combined power of incumbency and the Washington money machine can only be beaten by a really excellent candidate or a well-run grassroots campaign.

Over the past five years, the Tea Party’s agenda and efforts have been subsumed into the larger Republican mantras in a number of ways. Their movement is now effectively one more chunk of the Republican base – and just as different candidates appeal to different factions (social conservatives, defense hawks, small business), the Tea Party’s priorities are heeded or ignored to different degrees. McConnell’s approach has been to sound the gong on all sorts of Tea Party issues this election season, and this has been the approach adopted by several others as well – Thom Tillis was full-throated on the Medicaid expansion in North Carolina, Jack Kingston and David Perdue did their best to depict themselves as having an affinity to the more palatable aspects of the Tea Party agenda, and Monica Wehby made Obamacare issue number one for her campaign.

To a certain extent, McConnell, Eric Cantor, and other establishment figures are conceding a key premise of the Tea Party’s complaint: that the Republican status quo is unacceptable, that it’s damaged in a fundamental way, and needs a serious overhaul in order to win. The Tea Party wants that overhaul to look a certain way, and the establishment and the party’s corporate backers want it to look a certain way; but the majority of both factions seem to be arriving at the conclusion that in 2016, it won’t just amount to getting the band back together for the typical three-legged stool candidate. It’ll have to be someone who alters the Republican agenda in one direction or another, or takes pieces from each side and cobbles them together in an appeal which cuts across traditional lines.

John Hart, communications director for Tom Coburn, notes this accurately:

[T]he transformation of McConnell’s campaign from 2008 to 2014 shows the overwhelming persuasive and redemptive power of the Tea Party. In 2008, the Senate minority leader ran a series of ads touting his success at bringing home the bacon. In 2014, his campaign had lost that aroma. McConnell himself helped end earmarks in 2010 and recently said no to Majority Leader Harry Reid’s call to restore the disgraced practice. McConnell’s evolving message shows how the real Tea Party can co-opt and win over the GOP establishment when it sticks to its principles.

In fact, thanks to the Tea Party, the old-style “bring home the bacon” campaigns have largely been wiped off the electoral map. Even Democrats have joined the Tea Party’s anti-pork campaign. Mark Udall, Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren have all vocally opposed earmarks, a rare challenge to Reid’s rigid party discipline. The Tea Party’s influence, of course, extends well beyond earmarks. In race after race, candidates are embracing its message of less government, less spending, less regulation and more freedom, particularly on Obamacare.

The problem, of course, is that if you win, this campaign season lip service has ramifications for the policy agenda you actually put forward. If a McConnell-led Senate majority makes battling Obamacare about insurance bailouts, it’s different than if they make it about repealing the medical device tax. The simple truth is that the establishment and the Tea Party need each other to win, just like McConnell needed Rand and Rand’s people to avoid a serious challenge.

There’s risk for the establishment in this, of course. Republicans who espouse a populist conservative agenda to get a job and then implement a K Street agenda will have to deal with the political fallout of a Rorschach moment. The view is that they’ve corralled the Tea Party, domesticated it without giving it a real seat at the table. But I still think they misunderstand who’s locked in with whom.

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