POLITICS

The GOP establishment strikes back

 

michaelgerson@washpost.com

The unfolding GOP primary season is clarifying two points: The Republican establishment is back, and it is more conservative than you’d think.

In the North Carolina Senate primary, the establishment winner, Thom Tillis, was the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 2011 legislator of the year and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life. Yet he was attacked by tea party groups as a RINO — expanding that term to cover just about every Republican who doesn’t own a tricorn hat.

Tillis’ main tea party opponent, Greg Brannon, possessed no apparent qualifications for public office, except a sense of divine calling and a remarkable facility for quoting the Constitution. For Glenn Beck, this was more than enough. “I could tongue kiss you,” Beck told Brannon during an interview, “and I’m not a guy who does that.” FreedomWorks added its wet embrace, boasting of the number of phone calls it had made and lawn signs it had raised. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flew in for a last-minute smooch.

But the Republican establishment — after years of being ambushed and accommodating its ambushers — was ready this time. Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads spent millions to avoid the emergence of another Sharron Angle or Christine O'Donnell — candidates who motivate their thousands and alienate their ten thousands. For the GOP, North Carolina was a victory of sorts: an expensive victory, consisting of avoiding disaster.

This struggle has taken a while to fully emerge. At first, the GOP attempted assimilation. In 2012, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was made the vice president for grassroots outreach at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, apparently on the theory that arsonists make the best firefighters. Cruz did his party a vital but unintentional service — forcing a government shutdown over Obamacare repeal, which then forced a GOP reassessment of tea party intentions. The decisive break came when tea party groups began attacking solid Senate conservatives such as Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as quislings.

Tea party leaders managed to confuse petulant, childish, counter-productive legislative tactics with constitutional fidelity. And Republican leaders finally realized that some tea party agendas — list building, fundraising, presidential primary positioning — were inconsistent with their own.

The government shutdown may turn out to have been the high-water mark — the Cemetery Ridge — of the tea party movement. In the aftermath, House Speaker John Boehner declared that tea party groups had “lost all credibility” and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that the party would “crush” outsiders targeting incumbents. The next two months of primary battles will determine the final tally of the squashed. But high-profile tea party challenges in many places — including Kentucky and South Carolina — have faded.

The GOP establishment backlash has been successful for a particular reason: It has been led by politically rational conservatives, not the RINO moderates of tea party nightmares. Rockefeller Republicans are as rare as giant pandas; both cause passersby to point and gawk. The consensus among Republican legislative leaders and prospective presidential candidates is Reaganite (or right of Reagan) in most respects. So the tea party revolt must not only fight against RINO enemies, it must imagine them.

The main problem with the tea party movement is not tactical or tonal but ideological. Its leaders quote the Constitution to end political discussions: Where do you find the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Institutes of Health or Social Security in the language of the document? Most of the Founders (particularly the Federalist ones) saw the Constitution as the beginning of a political discussion: How does a free nation employ this remarkable structure to confront its problems and achieve its greatness?

Yes, the GOP needs electable candidates. It also needs for those candidates to have something useful and hopeful to say.

© 2014, Washington Post

Writers Group

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  • CIVIL UNREST

    It can happen here, if we let it

    America’s urban cores have, in many cases, been abandoned by the powerful, dissected by highways that destroy a feeling of community and neglected in the apportionment of educational opportunities. The combination of external neglect and internal dysfunction has engendered explosive conditions — an undercurrent of anger that is easily made into a combustible mixture by the use of deadly force, typically involving a white police officer and a black citizen.

  •  
PUTNEY

    FLORIDA RACES

    Disgusted with smarmy campaigns

    How seriously should we take the candidates on the November ballot? As seriously as they take the big issues, which is not very.

  • In My Opinion

    Ray Rice’s fans are too quick to forgive

    “I think they’re going too far with Ray Rice.”

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category