In early February, Karl Rove, the architect of President George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns, announced a new endeavor, the Conservative Victory Project, designed to recruit and support Republican candidates for Congress.
Many Tea Party supporters have interpreted the initiative as an effort to defeat their candidates in party primaries. Indeed, some see it as the opening salvo in a Republican civil war. President Obama’s State of the Union address was met with dueling rebuttals — the formal opposition party’s given by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and one by the Tea Party presented by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
The resulting commotion has begged the question: Is the Tea Party good for the medium-to-long-term electoral prospects of the GOP? The outcomes of recent federal elections are mixed. Tea Party-backed candidates like Sharron Angle (Nevada), Joe Miller (Alaska), and Christine O’Donnell (Delaware) in 2010 and Todd Akin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) in 2012 lost Senate general elections they should have won.
But in 2010, Paul won one the party well could have lost and “establishment candidates” like Rick Berg (North Dakota), Denny Rehberg (Montana), Tommy Thompson (Wisconsin), and Heather Wilson (New Mexico) failed to grab seats in 2012 that Republicans, desperate to take control of the Senate, should have captured.
Perhaps a better approach is to ask what a Tea Party-dominated GOP would look like. What would its positions on policy issues be? What would its general reputation be like?
The Tea Party has many parts — including the Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Nation, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and a caucus of members of Congress. It is heterogeneous and amorphous. It is, however, clear on economic issues and places great emphasis on fiscal responsibility and free markets.
These positions undoubtedly help the GOP. Americans recently have been in populist mood and polls show them supporting additional taxes on wealthier citizens. However, they are deeply concerned with the deficit and a majority understands current spending on entitlements is unsustainable and that structural, rather than incremental, changes to Social Security and Medicare are necessary. Most realize Obama is not serious enough about deficit reduction. Americans still want limited government — 62 percent in a recent Rasmussen poll say they prefer a “smaller government with fewer services” to a “larger government with more services.”
Once they stray from this strictly economic argument, however, Tea Party principles sometimes display faulty logic and can be at odds with conservative orthodoxy.
Perhaps the most egregious example emanates from the first item on the important unofficial Tea Party manifesto called the “Contract from America” — a commitment to prevent Congress from exercising illegal powers by requiring it to state formally the specific provision of the Constitution that allows it to enact legislation under consideration.
This is at the heart of the “constitutional conservatism” argument, but unfortunately the Constitution is not self-executing. To have force, the document requires a human agent. As we have known since 1803 when Chief Justice John Marshall penned the decision in Marbury v. Madison, judges provide this service. Many in the Tea Party would have Congress seek explicit permission from the courts before it could act. Subordination of legislative power like this is precisely what conservatives fought against in the 1960s and 1970s. We generally should defer to legislative bodies, not promote judicial activism.
A Tea Party takeover also would alter the fundamental temperament of the Republican Party. The GOP is used to governing and, as a result, has developed a character suitable to the responsibility. There are times when it has become complacent and has breached the public trust — Watergate, for instance — but the party and many of those within it have a sensibility suited to national political leadership. In fact this has often been an electoral advantage — Democrats, at the time viewed as impetuous and irascible, furnished a stark contrast to Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some high-profile Tea Party politicians rail against this. They repudiate deliberation and debate and behave as if policy is everything. They seem ignorant of process and the Framers’ system of checks and balances. They seem not to understand Americans’ desire for judicious leadership. I believe it is this temperament — more than its positions — that explains the Tea Party’s fading popularity. In November 2010, 27 percent of Americans supported the Tea Party; today only 18 percent do.
The Tea Party has performed an invaluable service by refocusing the GOP on economic principles from which it had strayed. The movement has a committed and often well-informed group of supporters.
But it would be wise to note that since Ronald Reagan resurrected it, the Republican brand has stood for more than just personal liberty and fiscal constraint. As president, Reagan realized it had been built on 126 years of responsible leadership, national strength, and strategic pragmatism as well.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.