Opinion Columns & Blogs

Can a maturing tea party revive Republican fortunes?

Chris Christie hasn’t saved New Jersey. So why do so many establishment Republicans think he can save their embattled and beleaguered party three years before the next presidential election?

Wishful thinking, that’s why.

Christie cruised to re-election victory in the Garden State on Nov. 5, crushing his Democratic opponent with more than 60 percent of the vote in a solidly blue state. All of a sudden, people who really ought to know better are touting the loud-mouthed governor as a top-tier candidate for the GOP nomination for president in 2016.

Never mind that Christie isn’t much of a conservative. He has no ideology to speak of. For a certain class of Republican donor – rich, finance-oriented, wholly divorced from social issues – he’s the anti-tea-party candidate, interested more in “getting things done” than in staking out principled positions on, say, the national debt or same-sex marriage.

Sure, Christie infuriates many of the right people – New Jersey’s powerful public employee unions especially. But as governor, his style and record resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger’s here in California: a gift for gab, budgets balanced with plenty of accounting gimmicks, and little in the way of policies to bolster the state’s economy and revitalize its horrible business climate.

Vying with Team Christie is Team Bush – as in Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida whose boosters really believe that the third time is the charm. Bush is one of the more prominent GOP supporters of comprehensive immigration reform. He’s also a major booster of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a series of untested national curriculum frameworks that most states adopted “voluntarily” in exchange for education stimulus dollars and waivers from the onerous requirements of No Child Left Behind.

These men, the GOP establishment says, are the future. The party’s conservative base has other ideas.

And what might those ideas be? Fact is, the tea party has been the most energizing phenomenon for conservatives to come along in years. But can a conservative populist movement that most Americans either know little about or simply despise build a winning national coalition?

It’s a killer challenge. Consider: The same day Christie coasted to re-election, Ken Cuccinelli, the impeccably conservative Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, lost in a squeaker to Terry McAuliffe, a man whose sole qualification for executive office was his knack for raising gobs of money from the Democratic elite.

Cuccinelli was the tea party’s man. Christie was the establishment’s man. What hope do conservatives have in 2014 and 2016 when the tea party’s best hope falls to a party hack while the establishment’s pick cruises to victory with little more than a wink and a nod in the direction of conservative policies and principles?

For starters, although tea party messengers can be inept and off-putting to broad swaths of the electorate – God bless Sarah Palin and her supporters, but she will never be president – the message actually resonates.

Consider the recent partial federal government shutdown. Beltway and conventional media wisdom insisted that the stunt was an unmitigated disaster for Republicans in general and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in particular. And what the heck was it all about, anyway? Defunding Obamacare, a political and mathematical impossibility. Republicans simply lacked the votes in the Senate to get the job done, as Cruz surely knew. Why bother, then, if defeat was assured?

Because look at what’s happening now: a tactical error is yielding a strategic victory. The shutdown spectacle showed how petty the administrative state could be, with witless National Park Service employees blocking off scenic views of national monuments. Yet the shutdown itself largely has been forgotten – in fact, it didn’t hurt the economy as much as experts warned – as Americans see for themselves the consequences of the very law Cruz and his fellow Republicans sought to kill.

Millions of people are learning to their shock and dismay that their premiums are going up – way up – and they’re unable to keep their doctors or plans as President Barack Obama repeatedly promised. In California, more than 1 million people have lost their old insurance plans because of the new law, according to the state Department of Insurance.

Obviously, “we told you so” isn’t a winning governing philosophy. Mere opposition is never enough. And it’s really tough to govern when you believe your government is against you, as many tea partiers do. For the tea party to succeed, and for Republicans to revive their flagging fortunes, they must propose.

Believe it or not, the tea party has come a long way since 2009, when thousands of people showed up in city centers and busy intersections to rally against government bailouts, exploding debt and the threat of higher taxes.

Those demonstrations were a great deal of fun, but the smart activists – the ones who understood that a protest here and there didn’t amount to much more than political street theater – realized that the way to reshape the political landscape was to make change from within the system.

It’s a lesson Democrats learned decades ago and conservatives are learning again: you need to get elected, and not just to Congress. Sure, the tea party scored some major victories over the GOP establishment in the House and Senate in 2010 and even last year with Cruz. But several high-profile tea party candidates for state and national office flamed out because they simply weren’t ready for big-time politics. Now tea party activists are making inroads on party central committees, in local planning commissions, school boards and city councils. That’s smart.

The tea party also needs to learn that while first principles are necessarily the basis for governing, the right principles alone aren’t sufficient. They need to demonstrate through concrete policies why the principles are right for these troubled times.

Practical politics must be a daily lesson in the art of prudence – or, as political scientist and Ronald Reagan biographer Steven F. Hayward put it in Forbes recently, what’s needed is “a commitment to high principle combined with a profound grasp of current circumstances.”

“The first part is easy,” Hayward observed. “Declaring principle, and one’s adherence to it, seems a clear duty and is always well received – by your fervent allies and supporters. More difficult is the task of persuading the undecided and the confused, and figuring out, in a democracy, how to assemble a stable majority of public opinion behind a course of action that can succeed.”

Loath as some conservatives (like me) may be to admit it, Christie himself put Hayward’s advice into concrete terms in his election night victory speech. “We don’t just show up in the places where we’re comfortable, we show up in the places we’re uncomfortable,” he said. “You don’t just show up six months before an election.” For Republicans, that means making the pro-liberty case to traditionally Democratic constituencies – blacks and Hispanics, for example – not simply telling them what they want to hear.

A word of a caution is in order. If it’s wishful thinking on the part of the Republican establishment to regard a Christie or a Jeb Bush as the GOP’s next great hope, is it not also wishful thinking to say the tea party can ultimately rally Americans under the banner of greatly limited government?

For the republic’s sake, it better not be.