Saturday, October 26, 2013

Tea Party Today: Democrats in 1972?

Now that the shutdown and threat of default are over, I should be turning to Obamacare and its disastrous rollout and wondering if it is salvageable.  I do plan to get to that in the near future, but I would like to pause for a few thoughts on what is happening to the Republican Party.

A strong hint of it comes from the 2010 Senate election in Delaware, in which the Republicans threw away an easily winnable seat by nominating the certifiably crazy Christine O'Donnell over the moderate Mike Castle, of whom one observer said, "Mike Castle does not lose elections in Delaware."  The point is not simply that the Republicans threw away a winnable election by nominating a crazy candidate, but how their actions were perceived.  Because Castle had a distinguished political career in Delaware and was supported by most of the state's movers and shakers, O'Donnell's nomination was hailed as a victory for the grassroots over the Republican establishment.  Except, as a local observer noted, the Delaware Republican establishment is the grassroots.  The "establishment" includes "long-term GOP activists and loyal partisans who attend State conventions, show up to volunteer locally year after year, and know their state’s electorate and issues really well" and people "who knock on the doors and pass out the literature and pound the pavements.”  Much of O'Donnell's funding and manpower came from the Tea Party Express, based in California.

Something similar happened with Ted Cruz.  Though a Princeton and Harvard graduate with a longtime career in federal and state government and the backing of national conservative organizations, Cruz was able to portray himself as the outsider and insurgent against an "establishment" candidate because his opponent because his opponent got along with his fellow Texas politicians.

It reminds me of what I have heard about the Democrats in 1972.  I am personally too young to have first-hand understanding of the Democrats in 1972 and too old to study them as history, but this is my understanding.  Traditionally, the parties had chosen their Presidential candidates at nominating conventions. The nominating conventions were run by the party movers and shakers -- governors, mayors, party machine men, and political bosses.  Democratic activists scorned such people (justifiably) as corrupt and elitist and (less justifiably) as out of touch.  Proclaiming, "Power to the people!" they demanded an opening up of the nominating process, and they got it.  Except it turned out that most ordinary people had other things they wanted to do with their lives than nominating candidates, and that only hard core activists really wanted to put in the effort.  It further turned out that activists were considerably more hard-core in their ideology than ordinary people.  It further turned out that elected officials and party bosses, though often corrupt, got there by understanding their constituents and were often closer to ordinary voters than the activists.  "Power to the people" turned out simply to mean power to the activists and turn most people off.  The 1972 Democratic convention was such a freak show that it handed Richard Nixon -- easily our least charismatic and least personally likable President of all time -- a record landslide.  Democrats gradually changed their nominating rules to allow more establishment people and ensure that grownups were in charge.

So, is the same thing happening to Republicans now?  They do have the advantage of a larger and more entrenched activist base than the Democrats had in 1972.  And they seem solidly in power in the South, the Great Plains and (possibly) parts of the Mountain West.  But these regions are not the whole country.  They are not even the whole "flyover country."  And the Tea Party really does seem to be making the same mistake as activists on the left made back then -- mistaking themselves for the American people.

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