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06.23.10

The Tea Party: Crass But Right

Their recent efforts to recall elected officials are one step too far, says Andrew Roberts—an early fan of them who warns that their rude style and tactics could derail the GOP in November.

Could the Tea Party’s latest wheeze—to recall about half a dozen senators, starting in New Jersey—mark the moment when the movement has overreached itself? I believe that the Tea Party began as a wholly positive political phenomenon, reminding mainstream Republicans where their hearts should be, but like so many juggernaut forces in history it has now careened out of control and now threatens to damage precisely those interests and causes it was founded to support.

We have all been to great parties that are gatecrashed by undesirables and get nastily out of control; that is what is happening to the Tea Party.

As a British Tory, I should be among the last people to welcome a movement named after seditious Bostonian tax-protesters of the 1770s, but when it suddenly sprang up in 2008 I applauded the Tea Partiers as they vented their anger and frustration at the high-tax, high-spend society that President Obama promised. Today, however, I feel like inverting the famous Voltaire quotation “I disagree with what you say but would fight to the death for your right to say it,” and telling the Tea Party that although I agree with pretty much all that they say, I would fight to the death for them to stop saying it in the crass, strident, rude, and hyperbolic manner they’ve for some reason chosen to adopt.

Politics is partly about pitch, and the Tea Party has adopted one so screechingly high that it is putting enough people off voting Republican to threaten the great revival of the GOP’s fortunes expected from the November mid-terms.

Benjamin Sarlin: The Tea Party Conspiracy TheoryThe recall of an elected public official is something that should only take place in extremis, if the person involved has committed a high crime or misdemeanor, such as Governor Gray Davis virtually bankrupting California in 2003. Although the power of recall can be traced back to the laws of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631, i.e. a full 142 years before the incident so revered by the Tea Partiers, it has always been used as a weapon of last resort, rather than as just yet another political arrow in the quiver. (Gray Davis was only the second governor to be recalled in the whole of American history, for example.)

Most sensible Americans accept that, and will recoil from an organization that professes regard for the letter of the Constitution while uprooting its spirit. The Tea Partiers’ attempt to recall New Jersey Democrat Senator Robert Menendez—who is, unhelpfully for their image, an Hispanic—as well as Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota, will excite grass-root activists as much as it puts off ordinary Americans. Like the extreme McCarthyites of the '50s accusing General George C. Marshall and the Pentagon of Communist sympathies, the Tea Party has now gone too far.

This is a tragedy, because when it was a ginger movement that spiced up GOP politics and kept the mainstream party’s feet to the ideological fire, the Tea Party was a force for good. Today it is likely to let Harry Reid win in Nevada, through the choice of the egregious Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle as the Republican candidate, and might also lose Kentucky if Rand Paul continues to make moronic remarks about the Civil Rights Act. Say what you like about how dull mainstream GOP candidates have tended to be in the past, at least they don’t believe in ludicrous conspiracy theories like the libertarian wing of the Tea Party does.

Many Americans will simply not forgive the Tea Party for its absurd, counterintuitive role in imposing health-care reform on the nation. For if it had not been for Tea Party-connected Pat Toomey’s threat to stand against Arlen Specter in the Pennsylvania Republican primary, Specter—who held the vital 60th vote that could break the GOP filibuster—would not have turned his coat just as Obamacare appeared on the horizon. Tea Partiers might use the emotive phrase "Vichy Republicans" to describe their opponents in the mainstream GOP, but at least moderate Republicans would not have made an error as gross and long-lasting as Toomey’s.

The history of the near past—only the 1990s—provides two very clear precedents for the Republican Party to avoid if it possibly can, both of which should give the Tea Party pause for reflection. The first was 1994, the year that Newt Gingrich threw away the best opportunity for the Republicans for a generation. Gingrich started that year as "Prime Minister of America" with his genuinely popular Contract with America, but his libertarianism—over assault weapons, the abolition of federal departments of housing, commerce, and even education, curtailing Medicare and Medicaid, and so on—destroyed what credibility he had with the public long before he suicidally chose to shut down the federal government on November 15, 1995.

The other great example of political aversion therapy comes from Britain after the 1997 general election, when the Conservative party elected three leaders in a row from the Right of the party—William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard—before finally choosing a mainstream center-right moderate in David Cameron. The three right-wingers were certainly not Tea Party libertarians, and each of them was personally admirable, but in front of the formidable electioneering capacities of Tony Blair they were easily swept away, and the Tories stayed out of power for 13 years.

These classic errors of the 1990s are not ones the GOP can afford to make today. Barack Obama is easily as dangerous an electoral threat as Blair, and he will seize on every indication that the Republican Party has been taken over by libertarian ideologues, of which there are already far too many. We have all been to great parties that are gatecrashed by undesirables and get nastily out of control; that is what is happening to the Tea Party. It’s an idea whose time has gone.

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, Masters and Commanders, was published in the U.K. in September. His previous books include Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill, and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the Royal Society of Arts.