Until recently there was one thing you can count on in politics: the Democratic party will find ways to lose elections through internal division out of touch policy idealism. As the Democrats fight with themselves, the GOP usually develops a kind of internal cohesion in which liberal Northeast Republicans and arch conservative bible belters unite to have a solid front at election time.
How times have changed. The Democrats in both 2006 and 2008 acted with the pragmatism usually associated with the GOP. Not only did they coalesce around a clear message in 2006, benefiting from President Bush’s unpopularity, but in 2008 they put aside a divisive Presidential primary campaign to focus on electing Barack Obama and strengthening Congressional majorities. In the health care debate Speaker Pelosi enforced a kind of disciplined effort to bring the party together to pass reform, a feat many had considered impossible.
The Republicans, on the other hand, are at risk of misplaying the best electoral hand they’ve been dealt in some time. Buoyed by the fact the economy has stayed bad, increasing public pessimism and desire for change, they have engaged in an all out civil war, as the most radical 25% of the party — the energized base — try to take control. Like the liberals in the Democratic party who nominated George McGovern in 1972, they care less about wanting to win then wanting to purge the party of anyone they don’t see as ideologically correct.
This was evident last night when a rather bizarre Christine O’Donnell (masturbation is as bad as adultery, accusations from former campaign workers she’s a fraud, severe personal finance problems) defeated a very electable and reasonably conservative Mike Castle. O’Donnell is virtually un-electable, while Castle was the clear favorite for the November election. By embracing the extremes of the party, the GOP has virtually assured that the Democrats will not only keep the Senate, but that in November the news might be far different than what people now are expecting.
Castle is just the latest of Republican stalwarts being knocked off by the so-called “tea party” movement. But the damage she does might be far greater than just assuring the Democrats keep the Delaware seat once belonging to Vice President Biden. The image the GOP has in America is becoming defined less by cynicism with President Obama’s economic plan, then headlines of Republican infighting and a sense that, as former President Clinton said, “today’s Republicans make George Bush look liberal.”
Though the tea-party folk are convinced Obama harbors a secret socialist agenda, and salivate at Newt Gingrich’s claim he has a “Kenyan anti-colonial” world view (huh?), most Americans don’t want such political theater. As November gets closer, the Democrats best friends are the Republicans.
Americans want cooperation between the parties and pragmatic problem solving. If the GOP were going into the campaign stressing ideas over slogans, and ways of cooperation instead of ideological posturing, the public would embrace them. If a clear message was being sent saying, “We agree with the Democrats there are problems in health care, the US infrastructure, energy and unemployment, and we will use our influence to work with them to find ways to handle these which do not run up more debt and effectively turn the economy around,” it would sound very reasonable.
Instead they lash out against an Islamic community center in Manhattan, continue a barrage of vicious attacks on Obama, and attack their own people who aren’t ideologically pure. Convinced they are leading a massive revolt against the Democrats and “the way things are done in DC,” they mistake their own convictions for widespread public opinion, and may do more damage to the Republican party than seemed possible even a few months ago.
Note to tea partiers: you’re simply riding the same kind of wave Obama rode when he came into office. The economy is bad and people are sick of wars, creating the sense we need real change. Just as the Obama wave quickly dissipated, so will yours. Moreover, you’re only winning within the hard core of the GOP who votes in primaries. Most Americans do not share your world view.
Most Republicans, of course, know this. They understand that emotional movements can get a lot of press and create energy, but they dissipate quickly and can backfire if the headlines get too divisive and combative. They realize that they in these economic conditions in the first off year election during a new Presidential term that the deck is stacked in their favor. They expected an onslaught of advertising and attacks to come from the Democrats, and were prepared to weather them by keeping the focus on the economy and Obama’s policies. Instead they face internal revolt.
It is not yet common to hear this, but I predict it soon will be. If the GOP cannot regain control of its message, focus on the economy, and avoid being identified with the “tea party,” then they will be blowing an electoral opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of winning 50 to 60 seats in the House, they may not win 30. They may win only two to four Senate seats. Look at the polls. Republican leads are soft and small in many races, and the Democrats have more money and resources. Current predictions for a GOP “wave” assume those leads will stay or grow, and the Democrats will not be able to increase enthusiasm or stem the criticism.
If that wave doesn’t come, or if GOP behavior enthuse more Democrats and turn off some independents, there could be a shift to the Democrats between now and election day that push more tossups their way. And if on November 3rd Republicans wake up somewhat shocked and disappointed, thinking about what might have or should have been, they’ll only have the tea party to blame.