The midterms are boring—boring because everyone knows, in broad strokes, what’s going to happen. The media loves to imagine that some brilliant, last-minute White House strategy can save the Democrats, but in moments like this—when the public loathes Washington and Washington is controlled by one party—consultants’ tricks don’t matter. The latest pipe dream is that voters will punish the GOP for having nominated extremist weirdos like Christine O’Donnell. Really? In 1994, the good people of Idaho elected Congressman (as she demanded to be called) Helen Chenoweth, who warned that black helicopters, sent by the federal government, were menacing her state’s ranchers. In Galveston, Texas, voters elected a formerly homeless man.
When voters are determined to punish anyone associated with political power, hailing from the political, and even social, fringe, isn’t a liability; it’s an asset.
The more interesting question is what the Tea Party will do once it wields power. Last week Ross Douthat argued that “To the extent that the movement boasts a single animating idea, it’s the conviction that the Republicans as much as the Democrats have been an accessory to the growth of spending and deficits, and that the Republican establishment needs to be punished for straying from fiscal rectitude.” I find this bewildering. If the Tea Partiers are as angry at Republican fiscal irresponsibility as Democratic fiscal irresponsibility, how come the movement only sprung up after Barack Obama’s election? Where were these guys in 2004, after George W. Bush launched off-budget wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hiked education spending, forced through a costly prescription drug benefit, and won reelection because of the unprecedented enthusiasm of the GOP’s conservative base?
When it comes to government spending, the Republican Party is like a sinner who repents every Sunday morning without ever quite remembering what it did Saturday night. The cycle starts in 1964, when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, an unflinching, eat-your-broccoli, anti-government conservative. Goldwater wanted to slash the welfare state because, in good Tea Party fashion, he believed it was robbing Americans of their liberty. He even prioritized spending cuts over tax cuts, arguing that if the latter were not matched by the former, the country would go into deficit, which no principled conservative could allow. It was all very principled, and very unpopular: Goldwater lost in one of the largest landslides in American history.
• Dayo Olopade: Midterm Scramble for Youth Vote• Election Oracle: Predictions for All the Hot Races• John Avlon: Tea Party HijackingsThe man who gave the nominating speech for Goldwater at that convention was Ronald Reagan, who was emphatically not an eat-your-broccoli kind of guy. As Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, would later acknowledge, the Gipper’s political strategy was to cut taxes, raise military spending, and never, ever, cut the middle-class domestic spending that Americans loathe in theory and love in practice. For Republicans, the Reagan era was one long Saturday night binge. They won and won and the deficit grew and grew, until Bill Clinton got elected, at which point conservative Republicans grew obsessed once again with the immorality of debt. The result was the Gingrich revolution of 1994, when a crop of young, zealous Republicans tried to turn the party of Reagan back into the party of Goldwater. They proposed eliminating whole cabinet agencies and dramatically cutting Medicaid and Medicare, and in good Goldwater fashion, they were politically crushed when Bill Clinton made the 1996 election a referendum on those popular middle-class programs.
None of this was lost on George W. Bush, who in 2000 offered “compassionate conservatism” as a clear repudiation of the Gingrich anti-government crusade. Bush didn’t reduce spending on popular middle class entitlements; he forced through a prescription drug benefit that increased such spending by $500 billion over ten years. In 2005, flush with his reelection win, he reversed course somewhat and tried to partially privatize Social Security. The result: a political defeat from which his presidency never fully recovered.
When it comes to government spending, the Republican Party is like a sinner who repents every Sunday morning without ever quite remembering what it did Saturday night.
Which brings us to the Tea Party, many of whose activists seem genuinely dedicated to slashing government spending (except on the military, of course) and making the party of Reagan and Bush, once again, the party of Goldwater and Gingrich. Maybe this is one reason the GOP establishment is so scared? Over the last half-century, the Republican Party has been, at times, a genuinely anti-government party and, at times, a politically successful party. But it’s never been both at the same time. Once this fall’s elections are over, I suspect the Tea Partiers will begin learning that, the hard way.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.