My thoughts on the GOP after reading Rick Perlstein’s “Before The Storm.”
The Tea Party has shaken up politics in 2010 in much the same way as the Goldwater Revolution re-oriented the Republican Party in 1964.
It is a movement that gets under people’s skin. The mainstream press doesn’t understand its appeal. Critics believe it’s a fringe element. They label it as extremist, categorize it as a right wing insurgency, and claim it consists of fear mongers. Sympathizers call it a silent majority that is fed up with Washington politics as usual and worried about the expansive size of government in the age of Obama.
It has a polarizing leader. Sarah Palin has become the face of this group over the last year. She has generated momentum on the Right since she became John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in 2008. She drives liberals crazy. She makes the press roll their eyes. She is a perfect heir to Barry Goldwater.
Goldwater won the GOP presidential nomination in 1964. Conservatives, for the first time, wrestled control of the party platform from the Eastern Establishment that had nominated men like Wendall Wilkie, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon over the previous quarter-century. Robert Novak, the young syndicated columnist, captured the struggle that took place during the presidential primary season between Goldwater and moderates like Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, and George Romney in The Agony of the GOP, 1964.
Conservatives were euphoric; the rest of the country was aghast. They thought he was a nut. Many pointed to his San Francisco speech when he proudly proclaimed: “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” President Lyndon Johnson tapped into this sentiment with his “Daisy” commercial which suggested that a nuclear holocaust would occur if Goldwater was nominated.
The Republican nominee wasn’t concerned with his critics. He wanted to spread conservatism and spent his campaign spreading this message to Americans. Goldwater wanted to roll back Leviathan. He wasn’t concerned about exercising power or making the federal government more efficient. The Arizona senator wanted to reduce the size of government. Doing that would expand human freedom and maximize individual liberty….
In foreign policy, he scoffed at containment: the mainstream foreign policy of the day. This strategy sought to coexist with the Soviet Union. Goldwater claimed that the communists were at war with the United States. They must seek victory, not détente.
This message resonated with millions of young Americans. Many college students picked up Goldwater’s treatise The Conscience of a Conservative. Organizations like the Young American’s Foundation (YAF) tapped into this youth movement and mobilized popular support. Periodicals like National Review and Human Events spread the conservative message.
This energy paid off in 1964. National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. aptly asked: Did you ever see a dream walking? Goldwater was more than a politician. He personified an idea. Though Johnson trounced Goldwater in the November election, winning 44 states and 61% of the popular vote, the conservative wing reshaped the Republican Party. Illinois activist Phyllis Schlafy captured this sentiment in her pro-Goldwater manifesto A Choice Not An Echo.
Like Goldwater, Sarah Palin represents something larger than herself. She has her finger on the pulse of American conservatives. Her magnetism lights up the room. She uses language that relates with Middle America and resonates with her audience. And last year, she tapped into the Tea Party when many Republicans were skeptical of the movement.
This movement emerged in the spring of 2009, shortly after Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. This stimulus came just months after the Bush administration bailed out Wall Street in October 2008 with the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. This bailout culture extended to the auto and mortgage industries.
Many Americans opposed this federal overreach and the huge spending spree that took place in the last months of the Bush administration and throughout the Obama presidency. The Tea Party sprang up in response to this anti-Washington sentiment. It proposed to stop deficit spending, balance the budget, repeal health care reform, oppose green energy legislation, and cut taxes.
Republican leaders were wary of this movement when it first started. While conservative in many regards, the Tea Party also lashed out at the policies of the Bush administration. Sarah Palin was one of the first mainstream leaders to embrace the movement. After resigning as governor of Alaska in July 2009, she became the movement’s de-facto leader.
The Tea Party energized the conservative base last summer. It became a national phenomenon during August town hall meetings when congressional officials came home to discuss the health care bill with their constituents. Last November, movement supporters threw their support behind an unknown candidate in Massachusetts. The Tea Party shook up American politics when Republican Scott Brown defeated state attorney general Martha Coakley in the special election that replaced the late Ted Kennedy.
Brown had no business winning. Republicans don’t win statewide elections in Massachusetts. They certainly don’t win the election that replaced the liberal lion. In a debate, a moderator asked the Republican how he’d feel when he sat in the Kennedy seat. Brown spoke for the Tea Party when he proudly proclaimed: “It’s not the Kennedy seat, it’s the people’s seat.”
This week the Tea Party made national news again. This time, they did so in Alaska. Sarah Palin threw her support behind unknown candidate Joe Miller in his primary challenge against incumbent Lisa Murkowski. No one in the national media had the race on their radar. Everyone assumed that Murkowski would win the nomination easily and cruise to re-election in November. But Miller came out of nowhere and finished Tuesday’s primary fight slightly ahead of Murkowsi. Though the race is still too close to call as hundreds of absentee ballots remain uncounted, critics have already labeled this a Tea Party victory. If she loses, Murkowski will join Bob Bennett of Utah as a GOP incumbent who went down to a Tea Party challenger.
Incumbents don’t lose primary battles in politics unless they’re involved in some unethical behavior. But 2010 is no ordinary year. This is a Tea Party year. The people want Washington to listen and have shown their willingness to kick out incumbents who appear out of touch with their constituents.
Republicans are on pace for a banner year. Many expect them to regain the House. Some optimists believe they can retake the Senate. They must win twelve of fourteen elections to do so. Unlikely, yes? But this seems plausible as Democratic stalwarts like Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold are in tough re-election fights. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is also in a nasty campaign against Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite.
You can throw out conventional wisdom in politics this year. Anything is possible in 2010. One thing’s for sure: Sarah Palin has reemerged as a political sage and a Tea Party leader directing a movement which has struck a chord with the Republican electorate.