North Conway, N.H. They’re coming.
Not yet, of course. Not this week and not next week, but maybe next month, right after the election. The midterm congressional contests will end and, sure as the frost follows the fall of the leaves, the Republican presidential candidates will be here.
New Hampshire — in recent years bluer than the early autumn skies that form the backdrop to the Presidential Range, but with a bedrock Republican tradition that reaches down generations — will soon be a laboratory for the new GOP. Perhaps Thoreau got it right when he called New Hampshire a place where “the day is forever unproven.”
And so it is a perfect staging ground for a 21st-century Republican Party that is emerging as a most unusual outcropping on the political landscape, enjoying a traditional party surge even as it struggles with a muscular insurgency. That last happened here in 1980, when in that year’s presidential primary Ronald Reagan, offering a Western conservatism far different from the flinty Yankee brand, represented the fresh forces at the gates of the party, and George H.W. Bush, a Yankee patrician with a refreshing vigor, stood as the establishment figure.
In the three decades since, the Republicans have absorbed the Reagan conservatism and the Bush ascendancy and now are watching new forces compete for attention and votes. These are different Republicans with different impulses.
Some retain the social conservatism of the religious right movement that roiled the party in the late 1980s and 1990s. Many have a states’ rights outlook that curiously mimics the views of conservative Democrats of the 1950s and 1960s. All look at taxes the way elementary school nurses look at strep throat — with dread and loathing.
These new Republicans did not come from nowhere — nor did they spring, as Alice Roosevelt Longworth said of Wendell Willkie’s supporters, from “the grass roots of 10,000 country clubs.”
You saw them on cable last year, assailing House members at district town meetings, drawing a line in the summer sand on the president’s health care overhaul. You saw them the year before looking on in horror as their own Republican representatives lined up with a Republican president (and loads of Democrats, many of them in the Obama administration this very day) to bail out Wall Street and add billions to the deficit.
Party is chaos
Right now, the Republican Party is in the sort of chaos the Democrats thought they had patented, with the regulars trying to keep the radicals at bay even as they try to harness their energy and anger.
It won’t be easy. They want the passion at the bottom of the tea cup but they worry that the caffeinated newcomers are somehow too strong a brew for governing. They’ll see soon enough. The most interesting poll finding of the past week is from Zogby International. It shows that among likely voters, the tea party rated higher than either established political party.
Indeed, the tea party is about to bag a handful of Senate seats and a bunch in the House. The first fight they’ll prompt: a brutal Republican debate on earmarks.
Earmarks direct federal funding to specific projects. The new Republicans hate them. The old Republicans, who have fought for the seniority that makes them powerful enough to provide earmarks for their districts, used to hate them but now they aren’t quite so much opposed. If Republicans regain power — and thus attain important committee chairmanships — they may find that the evils of earmarks have been greatly exaggerated.
The purists are on their way to Washington and are not likely to see earmarks as a pure extract of democracy’s highest ideals. Nor are they going to find the totems and taboos of Capitol Hill enlightening and ennobling.
But while parties struggle in the capital, they find their identities in presidential campaigns far from Washington, which is why so few senators have graduated directly to the White House. Barack Obama is only the third, and his hold on the Oval Office is none too secure right now.
The Republicans now have a governing platform, a modernized version of the usual mix of tax breaks for small businesses, spending freezes and a ban on federal funding for abortion, plus of course repeal of Obamacare, which is about as likely as the repeal of the coming of winter on Mount Washington, where the first snow fell the other day. (After all, the president, even a weakened one like Obama, still possesses the veto pen, far mightier than the insurgents’ sword, thus rendering the question of repeal ridiculous. But if the Republicans win the House, they still might be able to starve the health care overhaul and perhaps influence the regulations that govern it.)
Already the tea partiers have helped spur traditional conservative donors from their Obama-inspired torpor, and these donors, in turn, have given millions to Republican organizations. The Republican Governors Association, not exactly a group of wackos, suddenly is a major funding recipient. A onetime important member of that group: Rep. Michael Castle, once the governor of Delaware before he became the target of the tea party and, last month, its most prominent victim.
The tea party tumult accentuates the sense of turmoil that the American political system has spawned in recent years.
George W. Bush won the presidency after an overtime election that underlined how deeply, and how evenly, split was the country. He presided over a grief-stricken country after Sept. 11, 2001, undertook two wars and saw his poll ratings plummet along with the economy. Then Barack Obama led a hope-and-change crusade that inspired young and independent voters and seemed to have created a new period of Democratic rule (and accompanying Republican despair), only to see the economy continue to sputter and his own approval numbers fall. Enter the tea party.
The result is that the velocity of change in American politics is at a nearly unprecedented level. That has been inspiring to the tea party. But it ought to be a warning to the tea party as well — and to the rest of us. The presidential campaign may be coming, but the real question is how much more change is coming.
— David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.