As was expected, the Republican Party failed to gain control of the Senate in this election cycle – a prerequisite to repealing Obamacare and other statist policies even if Romney were president. Further, the Democrats picked up a handful of seats in the House, though this too was predicted, and the Republicans still maintain a solid majority in that chamber. Despite the fact that Americans went to bed on Tuesday with one government and woke up on Wednesday with essentially the exact same government having been reelected, many are rationally upset about the outcome – indeed, rational individuals ought to be unhappy with the results.
But discontent should not give way to emotionalist fatalism, and certainly not to emotionally-charged analysis of the election. Rational observers should be careful that, when searching for the cause of the unfavorable conclusion of this election across all races, they do not assign blame to a scapegoat, especially not one which has actually accomplished much in terms of electing rational (or relative so) candidates to higher office. Unfortunately, many in the Republican Party are doing just that.
Following two botched attempts by the Republicans to regain the Senate in 2010 and 2012, many of the “old guard” within the Republican Party – those of the John McCain and Newt Gingrich variety – have become resentful or even hostile towards the Tea Party. Senator McCain, for instance, referred to his Tea Party colleagues in Congress as “hobbits,” declaring it to be “unfair” and “bizarre” that the Tea Party wanted the passage of a balanced budget amendment before agreeing to support House Speaker Boehner’s (poor) budgetary plan in the summer of 2011.
Pointing to the defeat of GOP establishment candidates in the primaries and then the subsequent defeat of “Tea Party” candidates in the actual election, they blame these losses on the Tea Party for its unwillingness to yield its principles for political gain, and for its political inexperience in general. And to be sure, this is the dominant political narrative running rampant through the field of political science: the Tea Party had a strong effect on candidate selection on the primary level and consequently cost the Republicans seats in the government.
But this theory does not withstand rational scrutiny. This election was not a referendum on the Tea Party and its principles, nor were many legitimate Tea Party candidates running in this election anyway. One must not forget that the Tea Party is not the only right-leaning political movement occurring in the United States. If Rick Santorum’s unjustifiably prolonged primary campaign is indicative of anything, it is that the religious right has again reared its ugly head and is experiencing its own political surge. Though many fail to make a distinction between the religious right and the Tea Party, the difference is far from unimportant.
The Tea Party – a group whose entire origin centered around the acronym TEA (Taxed Enough Already) – is not religiously driven, at least not on its whole. While certainly the Tea Parties themselves, along with the individual Tea Partiers, can be rather conservative on social issues, it is by no means their primary focus. Prior to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s candidacy, debates about the legality of contraception would have seemed unfathomable in the midst of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, TARP, etc. The Tea Party itself had existed for nearly three years at that point, but this author cannot recall a single instance in which the Tea Party or a major Tea Party figure had argued that the states have the ability to ban contraception if the electorate of that state so chose.
Though many conservatives certainly fail in their understanding of “states’ rights” and the proper powers of the state, Santorum’s chosen example of banning contraception – a type of legislation that was deemed unconstitutional in 1965 by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut – came from virtually nowhere out of left field. It did not display run-of-the-mill conservative errors and inconsistencies, but actually represented a shockingly consistent conservative pathology opposed to individual rights. This is the pathology possessed by men like failed Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, who was despised even by fellow Republicans.
In any case, the religious right has exhibited a profound presence in recent months, a presence that is just as strong as, if not stronger than that of the Tea Party. Though many of these individuals assert that they are “part of the Tea Party,” they are not. As stated in an earlier essay, the proper term for such individuals is “Coffee Drinkers”:
“[T]here have been many politicians and activists who wrap themselves in the Gadsden flag without taking the economic stances of the Tea Party to heart, or else they simply dwell on issues outside of the Tea Party’s economic focus… [I]f they are not the typical progressive Republicans like Sen. John McCain or Sen. Scott Brown (the latter being an example of an early ‘Tea Party’ victory), they are members of the religious far right, such as Santorum, who would forgo any of the economic liberties supported by the Tea Party to see their religious social values implemented as law.
Naturally, such politicians and preachers have their supporters, often being the same individuals who enthusiastically show up to Tea Party rallies chanting such slogans as ‘principle over party’ and ‘no more compromise candidates.’ Those same individuals who claim to wholeheartedly support the idea of truly free markets, of balanced government budgeting, and of the limited republican system maintained by our country’s system of federal and state constitutions also have few qualms, if any, in supporting candidates who pass economic regulations, who increase our nation’s debt, and who ignore some of the fundamental tenets within our nation’s various constitutions, particularly the federal Constitution. In turn, these individuals are treated as accurate representations of Tea Partiers. Without consistency and without principle, these Coffee Drinkers besmirch the reputation of the Tea Party amongst other liberty-minded individuals and relegate the Tea Party to the status of nothing more than an unprincipled Republican Party offshoot.”
And truly, this is how the Tea Party is often understood in academia. Those who gleefully celebrate the defeats of men like Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana (or Christine O’Donnell in 2010) as “proof” of the Tea Party’s demise are the same who have no real conception of the Tea Party’s real significance.
This is, of course, in part due to the adoption of Tea Party rhetoric and symbolism by many within the religious right. Further, when Tea Party groups – legitimate or not – endorse such candidates, it is often seen as a reflection of the Tea Party’s “deep-seated” religious drive. If this publication’s endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012 is to serve as an example of anything, it should be that one often endorses a candidate, even a candidate one reviles, simply because there is no other option presently available.
This should be the true legacy of the 2012 election cycle: the need for strong, principled, Tea-Party orientated candidates. While the Tea Party itself does not actually nominate candidates, it influences elections by endorsing certain candidates and motivating its membership to actively assist in those candidates’ campaigns. A large problem – and the GOP establishment is correct on this account – is that many of these candidates are not “quality” candidates, meaning they may have little to no political experience. Now-deposed Congressman Allen West is a perfect example of this problem. Prior to being elected to the House in 2010, Congressman West had no political experience beyond a failed run for the same seat in 2008.
Though West has yet to concede the race to his opponent (there is about a 2,000 vote margin between the two), many blame his defeat on his membership in the Tea Party Caucus and his support of Tea Party policies (one should note, however, that West’s records is not the most exemplary nor secular among fellow Tea Partiers). What the opponents of the Tea Party omit is that West was one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the House following redistricting based on the 2010 census. Combined with West’s own lack of political experience and the fact that he gained his seat in the wake of an immense national tide which was not similarly experienced in 2012, and it becomes difficult to blame West’s failed reelection bid on his Tea Party affiliation at all – the simple mechanics of census redistricting and the effects of national tides on congressional elections are the more likely culprit.
Is the answer, as many Republicans believe, to return to the GOP’s age-old tradition of “me-tooing” the Democrats and running centrist congressional candidates? Hardly. If such a strategy had any merit, Mitt Romney should have theoretically done substantially better than his consistently Leftist opponent. However, Romney only won two more states than John McCain did in 2012, failing to draw voters to the polls (2012 turnout is seemingly lower than even that of 2004 and not just 2008). Voters feel little incentive to rally behind non-entities.
The solution is to continue shifting towards Tea Party positions within the Republican Party. But in doing so, one must entice quality candidates to seek higher office. Many Tea Partiers may not have significant political experience, but even so, it benefits both them and the nation to seek office in the first place. Experience is not gained by doing nothing, and seats are not won by not running.
More than that, these quality candidates ought not be found among the religious right who, assuredly, are doing more damage than even the moderates in the Republican Party. They center their focus on issues the American public is finding increasingly distasteful to discuss. Though the religious right fail to see it (or, if they do, they are fighting all the more virulently to prevent it), theirs is largely a dying cause. Having spent the evening of Election Day with the College Republicans at the University of Georgia, I can proudly attest to the fact that the next generation of Republicans in the United States (or the majority of them) did not so much as bat an eye as a number of states approved measures legalizing gay marriage and various forms of personal drug usage. Within the course of a generation or two, this will likely be the dominant position of the Republican Party – all the religious right is accomplishing is delaying the inevitable, and hindering the possibility of solving our nation’s economic woes in the meantime. In sum, the GOP often has much less to fear from what inexperienced Tea Party candidates might say on the campaign trail than they do from what experienced members of the religious right might say.
Admittedly, it is not an easy task to discover worthwhile candidates who also actually to the principles of the Tea Party, but that does not mean they are impossible to find. Nor does it mean that a lack of previous electoral experience is an eternal bane to any Tea Party member (let alone other politicians) seeking higher office. Men like Senators Rand Paul (KY-R) and Mike Lee (UT-R) have had rather successful careers thus far, despite never holding office before their election to the Senate. But what it does mean is that unless quality Tea Party candidates do run, many Republican voters will have no other option except for members of the religious right – an undesirable situation both in terms of electoral prospects and in terms of political policy in general.
Sadly, many Republicans refuse to make such a commitment. Misguided by the belief that American voters rejected the Tea Partiers (rather than the religious right and centrists) on their principles, many Republicans still vainly cling to the idea that they need a centrist solution for 2016. As one College Republican (a rather high-ranking member of Rick Perry’s election bid in Georgia) irrationally put it, “If we’d only run all RINOs [Republicans In Name Only], we’d have the Senate back and all our problems would be solved!” Others expressed their hope that Jon Huntsman – the largely self-financed moderate contender in the Republican primary of little renown – would run again in 2016. To them, it is little more than a game of trying to get more “R’s” in office than “D’s,” with no reference to the polices supported by either. “It doesn’t matter how we get there,” they exclaim, “so long as we do!” The natural result is that they never achieve their goal, as the candidates themselves have no goals to offer – or at least none other than the watered-down version of those already offered by the Democrats.
No, what the United States needs is not more establishment moderates to plead to the American public that they are a “bipartisan compromise” for today’s issues. And certainly, it does not need more preachers taking up a career in politics only to the marginalization of the legitimate movements for individual rights on the social front.
What the Republican Party needs is a set of free market principles, and the Tea Party needs to acquire a philosophic foundation for those principles. This will take time, but much can be accomplished over the course of the next two years. In the meantime, the GOP should not delude itself (or allow itself to be deluded by political analysts) into believing it lost by being too principled. In 2012, it merely had little principle to offer.