DC Culture

04.24.12

K Street or the Tea Party? I Choose Neither.

In the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney puts a challenge to David Brooks and me. I'll offer an answer, first handing the mike to Tim Carney himself:

Consistently, [in internal primary contests] the moderate Republican gets the industry PAC and lobbyist money.

This year we're seeing it again with Tommy Thompson, Dick Lugar, David Dewhurst, and Jon Bruning getting lobbyists and industry backing, while Mark Neumann, Richard Mourdock, Ted Cruz, and Don Stenberg get money from the corners of the Right on which Brooks and Frum frown.

So here's my question to the Brooks/Frum earnest moderate grownup Republicans:

Do you feel comfortable siding with the lobbyists, bailout recipients, and companies profiting off of protective regulation? Do you think the PACs and the revolving doors aren't corrupt? Or alternatively, are there Republicans who are independent from both lobbyist influence and Tea Party interests? (Maybe Bob Corker?)

I'd love for the Davids to address their de facto allegiance with K Street and Trent Lott.

It's a fair question that does raise some troubling concerns. 

I can't speak for David Brooks, obviously, but here's my own answer:

I'll agree with Tim Carney that the lobbyist culture of Washington is pretty bad, much worse than it was a generation ago. (That's a theme of my new book!) But the way in which he presents the choice in the quoted column presents a false dichotomy, that supports a false narrative, and points to a false solution.

The false dichotomy first:

Carney seems to be framing the choice as one between Insurgents (who may be fanatical, but are at least honest) and Incumbents (who may be open to reasonable compromise, but are also tainted by corruption).

Yet that's not the choice.

The single most ethically challenged Republican candidate of 2010 was Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell. Tea Party favorite Sarah Palin was not a candidate in 2012 because she preferred personal money-making over public service. It's true that Rand Paul did poorly with corporate PACs. Then again, better to get your money from a corporate PAC than—as the Paul family did in the lean years of the early 1990s—raise your money from racially inflammatory newsletters.

More seriously: Carney attaches large significance to differences between PACs and the 527 group, Club for Growth. I don't follow him here at all. According to the OpenSecrets website, the top donors to the Club in the 2012 cycle include important figures in the financial industry: Jackson Stephens of Little Rock, Ark., and Robert Arnott, of Newport Beach, Calif. The Club for Growth advocates for policies favorable to that industry, such as lower tax rates on capital gains. I personally happen to agree with that policy. Then again, I agree with some of the policies urged by K Street lobbyists too. 

Now the false narrative:

Tim Carney has written a book arguing that Big Business and Big Government are aligned against the interests of the ordinary American. From this observation, he personally draws libertarian conclusions (at least so I infer from his columns; I have not yet read his book on the subject, although I'll remedy that deficiency shortly).

Again, there's a lot here that I'd personally agree with. But if Carney wants us to take that one further step to see the Tea Party movement as essentially a libertarian movement, then I'm going to have to disagree.

It's not only obvious to the naked eye, but it's also supported by the best academic work on the Tea Party, by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, that the defense of the existing Medicare system against the perceived threat from healthcare reform was as integral to Tea Party voters as any other issue. 

Logically, you might think that it would be difficult to argue both that we should resist any and all tax increases and also that we should oppose any changes to Medicare and Social Security for at least the next 10 years. But that's just what happened. The Tea Party recast an economic problem—in which taxes and Medicare would have to be traded off against each other—as a "culture war" in which both taxpayer and Medicare beneficiaries must band together to protect their deserved and acquired rights against undeserving challengers.

That's why, to my way of thinking, the Tea Party is a dead end—and a dead end for conservatives most of all. Conservatism should be more than a defense of the vested interests of incumbents.

- PART 2 will be posted tomorrow -