October 3, 2013 6:19 pm

The Republicans have a Tea Party problem

Conservative stalwarts are the sort of allies the mainstream can do without, writes Reihan Salam
A tea-party supporter protest outside the US Supreme Court©AFP

One year ago this week, Mitt Romney, then the Republican party’s presidential nominee, scored a surprising victory in his first debate with President Barack Obama. Having endured withering attacks from conservative rivals and a well-oiled Democratic machine that had turned him into a cartoon plutocrat, Mr Romney stunned viewers with his problem-solving pragmatism. The debate was a false dawn as the Obama campaign proved its tactical superiority. But that brief moment demonstrated the potential of a less ideological Republicanism.

Now, of course, a relatively small faction of Tea Party Republicans has pressurised John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, into shutting down the federal government and using the threat of breaching the debt limit as a tool to secure policy concessions from Senate Democrats.

That this strategy is unpopular is beyond dispute. A new CBS News poll finds that 72 per cent of Americans oppose using a shutdown to force changes in Mr Obama’s healthcare reforms. But the same survey finds that 48 per cent of Republicans back it, and that the same is true of 57 per cent of self-identified Tea Party supporters. This cleavage between the Tea Party movement and the wider public is the central fact shaping the future of the GOP, and it raises the question of whether the rise of the Tea Party movement has hurt Republicans more than it has helped them.

To many conservatives, the idea that the Tea Party has damaged the GOP seems absurd; the movement’s emergence coincided with the Republican comeback of 2010. Tea Party protests brought energy to a beleaguered right early in the first Obama administration. Tea Party activists helped elect moderate Republican Scott Brown to the Senate – from Massachusetts, of all places – at the start of 2010, a development that nearly derailed the president’s health reform effort.

But as it happens, that election came at a time of very high unemployment, which tends to benefit the opposition party in midterm congressional elections. There is no way to really resolve the counterfactual question of how Republicans might have fared had Tea Party candidates not pulled the party to the right. Some will point to Republican defeats in Senate races in Colorado, Delaware and Nevada, where candidates identified with the Tea Party movement – fairly or otherwise – bested more conventional Republicans in primary elections. Others will point to more successful Tea Party Senate candidates that year, like Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Marco Rubio in Florida.

But consider some of the most influential Tea Party Republicans in the US Senate – Utah’s Mike Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, both of whom were elected in 2010, and Texas’s Ted Cruz, elected in 2012. These three men have played a leading role in pressing congressional Republicans to take a more confrontational stance over the funding of Mr Obama’s reforms. They are all distinguished by the intensity of their ideological commitment. All three also won a smaller share of the votes cast in their respective Senate races than Mr Romney won in their states. This is not an entirely fair comparison; Mr Romney’s election was two years later. Yet the midterm electorate is also smaller and more inclined to back Republicans.

In Utah, Mr Lee won an impressive 62 per cent of the vote in 2010. But Mr Romney won 73 per cent. In Kentucky, Mr Paul won 56 per cent of the vote in 2010 while Mr Romney won Kentucky by 61 per cent in 2012. And in Texas, Mr Cruz won just under 57 per cent of the vote in 2012 while Mr Romney won just over 57 per cent that same year. All three Tea Party stalwarts fared worse than a Republican presidential candidate who was widely regarded as profoundly flawed.

One could argue that Republican Senate candidates running in heavily Republican states should be more conservative than GOP presidential candidates who are obligated to win in more competitive states. That will inevitably mean that these Republican Senate candidates will tend to win smaller majorities. Problems arise, however, when Tea Party Republicans force their counterparts who represent more competitive states and districts to follow their lead, just as problems arise when GOP presidential candidates distance themselves from their party’s unpopular congressional wing. An approach that appeals to voters in Kentucky, Texas and Utah might not fare quite as well in densely populated coastal suburbs and other contested regions.

It would be one thing if Tea Party Republicans contented themselves with making forceful arguments with the intention of persuading their colleagues and the wider American public. It is quite another when they cripple the ability of the Republican leadership to act in the interests of the party as a whole. Yet one of the central tenets of Tea Party ideology appears to be that compromise aimed at expanding the Republican majority is anathema.

No one should doubt the sincerity or the seriousness of the Tea Party Republicans in Congress who are behind the government shutdown. Rather, one should question their judgment.

The writer is a fellow at the R Street Institute and a contributing editor at National Review

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