Over the weekend, Washington received the first of what are likely to be many wake up calls in advance of the November elections. The Utah Republican Party convention declined to re-nominate three-term U.S. senator Robert Bennett. It didn’t give him even enough votes to qualify for a place on the party’s primary ballot.
The Mainstream Media reported this amazing turn of events as the work of the Tea Party movement. And it is true that former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, which has taken up the Tea Party banner, was a presence at the convention, as was another champion of fiscal conservatism, the Club for Growth.
But the Tea Party is more than a couple of advocacy groups and its significance extends beyond turnout at a few rallies. It goes beyond those who would ever consider joining with the Tea Partiers. To see what I mean, consider this apparently arcane question: Why did George W. Bush win in 2000?
Forget about Florida, hanging chads, and Supreme Court rulings. How was it that Bush got close enough to a majority of the Electoral College to open the gates for that circus to parade though town? The country was at peace; the economy appeared strong; the Federal budget was in surplus. In other words, all the fundamentals said, don’t rock the national boat.
Yes, thanks to Monica and her West Wing romp, there was a general disgust with the Clinton Administration. We all heard the stories, and, after hearing them, we all wanted to take a shower.
But Al Gore wasn’t Bill Clinton. The only woman he was known to kiss with any passion was his wife – a point the two of them made much too graphically on the Democratic convention stage the night he accepted the party’s nomination.
Yet Gore wasn’t Clinton in another, more critical and politically fatal respect. Clinton had run as a centrist and, thanks more to the Gingrich Congress than to his own initiative, had delivered a centrist government. In retrospect, this meant, especially, that he had delivered budget surpluses. “People v the Powerful” Gore ran against that legacy.
So in the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush was promising more of what the American people wanted to continue of the Clinton years. With the GOP having gone to the government shutdown mat over excessive Federal spending in 1995 and with the budget surpluses that followed several years after they took charge, a majority of the public – in particular swing voters — trusted Republicans to deliver restrain of government and growth of the economy if put 100 percent in charge.
It is not too much to say that the Washington-based political establishment has misunderstood the last three presidential elections. The 2000 outcome was for continuity with course correction, not major change. The 2004 election went to the candidate who was more faithful to that agenda, with slack cut him because of 9/11. In 2006 patience ran out with the GOP’s profligacy, and in 2008 this same electoral majority wanted to teach the GOP a lesson it wouldn’t forget.
They still do.
You can’t put together a winning campaign with just the people who have shown up at Tea Party rallies. Impressive as those gatherings have been, when it comes to the numbers needed to prevail in elections, the rallies have been little more than media events. The key to their power is that they reflect a much broader body of opinion. That opinion is once more disgusted by the Democrats, this time by their spending, not their cavorting.
But as the GOP is their last best hope, they are not prepared to embrace GOP candidates who will once more dash those hopes. Senator Bennett voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. He looked all too ready to embrace a budget-busting healthcare bill, even if it was not the bill the President, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put forward. He did not seem ready to assert the proper limits of Federal power. And so he lost.
This is not just the story of Robert Bennett. In a different way is also the story of Charlie Crist in Florida. It looks as though it will be played out in Kentucky very soon. Elements of it can be detected in the Indiana primary vote. The swing vote in American politics is looking for a Congressional majority that will return the national to a government of limits – limits in spending and equally important limits in power. This is the story we are seeing played out in 2010.