How Republican Candidates Are Becoming Tea Party Toadies

GOP candidates are running from their records to curry favor with conservatives. Howard Kurtz on why the movement has soured on the 2012 field.

Dick Armey, his tan several shades deeper than his orange shirt, says he knows how to push Republicans to the right.

“If we own their fear, we can compel their behavior,” the House GOP leader turned Tea Party crusader explains. If presidential candidates truly repent for the apostasy of having taken moderate positions, “we’re willing to let bygones be bygones. But the first evidence that you’re drinking the backsliders’ wine, you’ll see us saying, adios, amigos.”

The grass-roots clout of the Tea Party movement has transformed the GOP presidential contest into a demolition derby in which candidates try to race away from their record before their vehicle crashes and burns.

Mitt Romney has been arduously attempting to justify his Massachusetts health plan while denouncing Obamacare (though both rely on individual mandates) and not sounding very convincing in the process. Tim Pawlenty has been in abject apology mode for the grievous sin of once supporting a cap-and-trade barter system for cutting pollution. Jon Huntsman was also a cap-and-trader and even wanted Barack Obama to push a bigger stimulus, which is now deemed a dirty word.

And then there’s Newt. Beyond using inflammatory language (“right-wing social engineering”) in attacking Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization plan, Gingrich briefly embraced, horror of horrors, a health insurance mandate. “It really stunned me,” Armey says, that Gingrich would attack Ryan, “the biggest hero of the constitutional small-government movement.”

But not for long; Gingrich beat an apologetic retreat after the right savaged him. The truth is, he was being consistent as a mainstream pol who once repeatedly compromised with Bill Clinton. He says he doesn’t want his evolution reduced to “a 12-second sound bite…I do not support a mandate, which was ironically the conservative position in ’93 in blocking Hillarycare,” Gingrich told me.

But that was then. The range of acceptable views for a GOP candidate has narrowed dramatically in this cycle. A Bush-style compassionate conservative, circa 2008, would be laughed out of the race.

“It’s called trying to win a Republican primary,” scoffs GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. “The sexy story is that they’re craven appeals to the party’s base, but the base is the repository of its principles. You don’t win the middle by becoming a Democrat lite.”

That, to be sure, is the grass-roots message. “I’m still waiting for that perfect candidate,” says Ann Becker, a Tea Party activist in Ohio. Romney’s shifts in position “make me wonder. I’m not sure if I believe he’s changed.”

The troops are acutely attuned to signs of political expediency. “Newt has changed his position so many times I haven’t met anybody in the Tea Party who believes anything he says,” explains Mark Meckler, cofounder of Tea Party Patriots. “Romney is so closely tied to Romneycare in Massachusetts that it’s difficult for any Tea Party person to support him. He should have come out and said I made a tremendous mistake.” But Meckler and other activists credit Pawlenty for challenging Iowa’s sacred ethanol subsidies.

That ethanol is causing more buzz than abortion is telling. “There’s no question the center of gravity has shifted,” says Dan Schnur, a political analyst at the University of Southern California. “But there’s an even more interesting shift from social conservatives to economic conservatives.” Armey, whose group Freedom Works has 1.2 million people on its email list, admits that gay marriage and abortion are uncomfortable subjects for the movement’s libertarians. But social issues are already baked into the Republican cake; no pro-gay abortion rights advocate is going to survive the Iowa caucuses.

Democrats, of course, have their own version of playing to the left. Hillary Clinton and other Dems spent much of 2008 trying to explain away their vote to authorize the Iraq War. But the conservative tide has risen so quickly that Republican candidates must scramble to higher ground or be submerged.

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The result is that some topics are off-limits and others require flouting the facts. When Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who is resisting calls to make a White House run, was asked whether he believed in evolution or creationism, he replied: “None of your business.” Climate change—who knows if it’s man-made? Defaulting on the federal debt—would that really be so bad? The House GOP, in fact, is set to vote down a rise in the debt ceiling on Tuesday—the sort of increase that was routine in the Reagan years and both Bush administrations. Usually savvy Republicans are falling into line or biting their tongues.

Armey doesn’t feign enthusiasm for the field; he says Romney, the nominal front-runner, carries the “almost impossible burden” of his state version of Obamacare. Mitch Daniels might have campaigned as a pragmatist who wouldn’t openly pander to the religious right, but his wife vetoed a run. The eventual nominee will have to pivot back to the center, where elections are won. But for now, the party’s ideological arteries have greatly constricted, and that may not be healthy.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.