Are the Tea Partiers good or bad for the GOP?

A round table discussion of whether the revolt of the conservative base is a blessing or curse for the Republicans

Published October 30, 2009 12:28AM (EDT)

Left: Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate for New York's 23rd Congressional District, talks with Adirondack Daily Enterprise staff on Oct. 15, 2009. Right: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin
Left: Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate for New York's 23rd Congressional District, talks with Adirondack Daily Enterprise staff on Oct. 15, 2009. Right: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin

In 2009, the energized right-wing base of the Republican Party transformed American politics. Nationwide protests against Barack Obama and his political agenda have forced establishment conservatives and the Republican Party power structure to make a strategic decision about whether listening to their core voters will help them or hurt them in coming elections.

What does the revolt of the GOP base mean? Does it represent a long-term structural change in American party politics? Will it alienate or attract the independents that Republicans need to return to power? We're likely to learn something about the short-term appeal of red-meat right-wing politics in next Tuesday's elections, particularly from the results of a special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District, where a third-party conservative has won the endorsement of national Republican figures and may well win the election too. For the longer view, we've assembled a panel, from both left and right, of keen observers of national politics.

Karl Agne is a founding partner of Gerstein|Agne, a Washington-based strategic communications consulting firm. Karl also serves as senior advisor to Democracy Corps, a nonprofit advocacy group he helped found in 1999 with James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Bob Shrum. Rick Perlstein is the author of "Nixonland: "The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America," and "Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus" -- the first two installments in a trilogy about the postwar conservative movement he is currently completing. Byron York is the chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner and the former White House correspondent for National Review. Byron is the author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy," the first book to trace the new political movement created by activists like, George Soros and the liberal blogosphere. Salon spoke to them by phone earlier this week.

Tom Schaller: I'd like to start with Rick and Byron, and ask that they provide some perspective on conservatism and its relationship to the GOP, as a way of putting the conservative angst we have witnessed in 2009 into a broader historical context.

Rick Perlstein: I hold no illusions that the number of folks who believe that there are sinister forces in Washington or the East that are kind of conspiring against ordinary folks on the right [has decreased] -- it's pretty constant in American history, or at least the 20th century. In the '20s it was the Ku Klux Klan, in the early '60s it was the John Birch Society. Now we know -- the stories the folks are telling on Fox News.

The big difference, I think, is how well they're able to kind of convince a margin of the American people that their agenda should be shared by them. In the 1920s, the Klan was fairly successful in taking over the Republican Party in a bunch of Midwestern states, like Indiana, but then in the early '60s, the John Birch Society was basically seen as verboten and beyond the pale. And I think a lot of it had to do with how the establishment media at various times treated these phenomena. I think one of the things that happened in the early '60s was the media -- and even the right-wing media people like William F. Buckley -- drew some boundaries about what was reasonable and unreasonable discourse.

And right now, with Obama pointing out the things that Fox News makes up, you're getting a lot of the mainstream media and the folks in Washington saying, "Well, why are you attacking someone who is part of our tribe, part of our team." So you get people like Howard Kurtz kind of aghast that this kind of faux pas has happened. But, you know, the faux pas is very similar to what William F. Buckley was doing, all the way through the 1960s, saying the John Birch Society's saying that America's foreign policy has gone astray because it's infiltrated by secret communists is not reasonable discourse.

Schaller: Byron, do you see analogues, historically, on the right side or the left side or both?

Byron York: I think it's pretty clear that the bases of both parties have moved farther apart over the years. If you go back to 1980 and just look at the ideological ratings of members of the House, relatively small numbers of Democrats, and small numbers of Republicans -- and Democrats were in the majority at the time -- relatively small numbers got 100 percent ratings, perfect ratings from either Americans for Democratic Action or the American Conservative Union or the other groups that rate them on their ideological purity. Now, the number of perfect scores is three, four times larger. So I think there's no doubt that each side has moved. This brings fights over ideological purity -- there's one going on right now in New York State over a House seat, New York 23, in which you have a liberal Republican and a conservative going at it. But I think you saw it a couple years ago in the netroots' attempt -- pretty darn close attempt -- to defeat Joe Lieberman with their chosen candidate, Ned Lamont. So these things crop up.

Schaller: I wonder if what we're seeing in the tension between the right and the center-right, between establishment Republicanism and agitators, is not different from what we saw in the earlier part of this decade within the Democratic Party between the Clinton wing and the other elements. Is this the natural state, when you've become a minority party, and you're trying to re-identify yourself, to fight within the party before you figure out how you're going to fight the other party?

Karl Agne: I think there are a couple things here. First, to Byron's point about the increase of polarization, I think it's impossible to overstate the role of redistricting in this. The redistricting process has become so technically advanced and so hyperpartisan that well over half the seats in this country now are won in the primary contest. So there's a natural incentive to go as far to either side, in order to win that, and just become a safe incumbent, than to go to the center and have to win general elections. And so that creates very different dynamics and very different pressures on those incumbents. To the same extent, there's a real pressure toward isolation on both sides.

What I think is the real fundamental difference here with what we're seeing in the conservative movement today, and what we saw with the Democratic Party and the progressive wing even a few years ago, is the centrality of Fox News to all of this. When we spoke with these conservative Republicans in the focus groups we did for Democracy Corps recently, what was really striking was we asked them specifically, who is the leader of the Republican Party, who speaks for the Republican Party today? And none of them in the groups we did named a single elected official. They didn't name George W. Bush, they didn't look to past presidencies the way Democrats did when Bush was in the White House and they looked back to Clinton-Gore and those times. Who they named was Fox News. Who they named was Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh. Those are the people who speak for the Republican Party in the minds of the conservative base voters that we're talking about. So the centrality of -- first of all, a media entity, not a partisan or ideological entity, but a media entity. And second of all, the fact that it's so large, and so organized.

You know, when there was this progressive anger bubbling up to the '04 election, it was from the netroots. It was a very grass-roots and a very disorganized voice, that became organized through the medium of the Internet. But there was not a well-established multibillion-dollar business driving it, the way there is on the conservative side. So it's a really fundamental difference in my opinion.

York: I would take one issue with that, as far as the netroots in '04. We all know about George Soros and his personal crusade that he undertook. But it was an enormous amount of money. Rick can correct me on this, but I think back in the '70s, W. Clement Stone, Nixon's friend, had contributed, I think $2 million to the Nixon campaign. And it so horrified reformers that it was one of the reasons that we ended up with campaign finance reform in the 1970s. I think if you translate that $2 million into 2004 dollars, you get $8 million or $9 million. Soros poured $27 million of his own dollars into this attempt to unseat Bush. It was not into a particular campaign, because that's not legal. It was into 501C3 and -4 groups, 527 groups, I should say. So it was actually an extraordinarily well-funded operation.

Agne: But that was about a campaign. And that was one of the great failings on the progressive side in '04, was all this money was poured into a campaign infrastructure. When the campaign ended on Election Day, there was nothing left. There was no footprint, as if all that money had gone down a drain. The structure that was created in '08, the Organizing for America and the understanding of voter files, and all the technological advances going into the '08 election, were much more about creating a long-term infrastructure to parallel what was happening on the right as far back as 20 years ago.

Schaller: What is the status of the institutionalized conservative movement, as opposed to the Tea Partyers, and so forth?

Perlstein: I think there's a lot of confusion. There's a lot of distrust certainly. The New York 23rd District race shows that. We have politicians like Sarah Palin and now Fred Thompson bidding for conservative bona fides by coming out quite explicitly for the non-Republican, Conservative Party line candidate in the race, who's associated with the Tea Party movement. And the Republican Party's candidate finds herself with the infrastructure of the Republican Party but without the insurgent energy which has been so powerful for the Republican Party over the years. I would compare it to what happened when Code Pink got fed up with Nancy Pelosi. They ran one of their people against her. The difference is, they're up to what, 22, 23 or 24 percent of the vote in polls up there in New York? Obviously, the Code Pink bid against Pelosi was just a gnat bite on an elephant. But the ecologies of the relationship between the establishment and the grass roots on the left and right are very different. I thought it was very little symmetry between them.

York: Rick, how would you compare the New York 23 race to the Connecticut race of a few years ago?

Perlstein: You know, I think actually it's a decent comparison. I think that the insurgents in that race have a pretty good point. The Republican candidate did vote for some very important Obama initiatives, just like Lieberman allied himself with some very important Bush initiatives. The question is, how prototypical it's going to be. I don't think that you're going to find as many -- let me put it this way. Every Republican who's in elected office and wants to stay in elected office, it really finds them on the horns of an enormous dilemma. They can join the coalition that's being built to govern the country, and contribute to debates over how healthcare is going to go forward, and things like that -- how cap-and-trade is going to go forward, how stimulus spending is going to go forward. Or they can join the Tea Party people and just refuse. I wouldn't want to be a Republican elected official right now, because it's really a zero-sum choice for these guys.

Schaller: I want to come back to Karl, who mentioned briefly the focus group studies put out by Democracy Corps, which you were involved in producing. Karl, could you just give us the quick 60- or 90-second study summary of what you did, what kind of questions you asked, who you focus-grouped, and what the key results are? And then your reaction to what your findings are. And then maybe we can bring Rick and Byron again to respond to it.

Agne: Sure. What we did was, we conducted groups among real conservative base voters, and then parallel groups among older, white, non-college voters in Ohio. The goal really being, that these are the most conservative independent voters. These are the independent voters Republicans really have to have to win any election, in 2010 or beyond. And then looking at the conservative base voters and seeing how large the gap was. In 2008, that was one of the most underreported stories, in our opinion, was the huge and growing gap between the Republican base and even the most conservative independents. Obviously, Democrats at the congressional level and Obama both won clear majorities of independents and won the election convincingly.

What we found was that even as these independents have started to pull back from Obama and the Democrats in Congress a bit -- some concern about healthcare, some concern about spending, a few other things -- they still fundamentally want them to succeed. They want to see the edges come off some of these policies, but they want to see it go through. They want the change that Obama promised them in the election, they're just not quite sure what that change should look like. The Republican base voters fundamentally want Obama to fail. They believe that he is intentionally trying to lead the country into a ditch, essentially, that he is trying to lead the country to failure, and thus to socialism. And so they see it as a moral responsibility to oppose every single step of his agenda. There's no sense of compromise. There is a clear moral obligation to stand firm and oppose him, no matter what. And that's really the fundamental dilemma that we were just discussing.

Schaller: Now, Rick, is this a new new right? Or is it just a splinter group that's getting an unusual amount of attention?

Perlstein: Well, like I said, the concerns are fairly continuous across the 20th century. What is different is that the Republican Party, and the Republican establishment, has kind of invested so much energy and so much passion and so much sincerity in the idea that conservatism is the name for everything good in politics, and compromise is the name for everything bad in politics, that they've kind of created this Frankenstein monster. During the Reagan years, you had pretty strong leadership at the top, once again, drawing the boundaries, and doing things like massaging the concerns of a very passionate base, but [the party didn't let] the tail wag the dog. I mean, I think of Ronald Reagan only giving video messages to pro-life rallies, instead of showing up in person. But there's this insurgent energy that the Republican Party kind of needs to keep going -- and without this constituency, there is no Republican Party, let's face it.

Schaller: Byron, is this a new new right? Is it some kind of pygmy cousin to what we've seen in conservative politics in the past? Or is it just a continuation that's getting an unusual amount of attention by a liberal media that's trying to denigrate and defang this movement?

York: After the 2008 election, there was an enormous debate, and a kind of anguished debate -- as there always is among losers -- among Republicans about why they lost. And there were basically two factions. There was the "we abandoned our true conservative principles" faction. And there was "the world is changing, there are demographic and political changes in the United States, and we as Republicans have not kept up with them." So, both of them argued for real change, but it wasn't the same kind of change. That question was not resolved. And I think if you look at conservative politics these days, you see that it's actually beginning to fade into the background, and it began to fade into the background beginning Jan. 20, 2009, with the inauguration of Obama, which gave Republicans a lot to oppose.

I think, now, if you look at a lot of polls -- public polls, and private polls that have been done for the parties -- you're seeing independents behave a little more like Republicans than they have in the past. What you saw in 2006 and 2008 was independents were sick of George Bush, they were sick of Republican leadership, they began to behave more like Democrats, although they remained independents. What you're seeing now, in the last nine months, is they're moving a little the other way.

I did have one question for Karl, which is, how do you characterize someone who wants all of the current versions of health reform in the House and Senate to fail, to be replaced by something that they would like more, with, say, changes to portability, tax structure and tort reform? And who would like to see the current cap-and-trade legislation that's passed the House but not the Senate fail? Is that someone who's on the extremes? Or is that a legitimate policy position?

Agne: Certainly that position as a piece of legislation would be a legitimate policy position. What we're talking about is a more fundamental worldview. The folks we talked about, you know, they are not sitting here reading line-by-line this legislation. The point is, they're looking at one thing: Did Obama propose it? It must be anti-American, it must be to the detriment of our country, if Obama stands for it. And that's really all that they need to know, and then from there, that is the bias with which they enter the conversation. And every piece of information that they pick up is fitted into that framework, and that's really the key to understanding it.

One point I want to make is -- because we do hear this a lot -- that independents are starting to look more like Republicans. That's, I think, a misunderstanding. Independents are starting to pull back from the strong support they had for Obama at the beginning of the administration. But they're not moving towards Republicans. This is the key. The Republican Party -- there was just a big release -- in one of the public polls had its lowest numbers in history this past week. The Republicans' favorability has not gone up, the way that it did in 1994, the way the Democratic Party's favorability went up before 2006, 2008. The Republican Party remains at its lowest point in history in public polling, and that's consistent across public and private polling. So there is some doubt and concern about Democrats, but no one's moving towards Republicans yet, no one's embracing their policy positions. And the frustration of the Republican base is that the Republican Party does not, in their opinion, stand for anything right now. They view the Bush administration as a real failure of conservatism. They saw it as high-spending growth of government. They think it was a real embarrassment and betrayal of conservatism. And they don't see anyone, including the Republican Party itself, standing for conservative values, conservative principles and conservative policies right now.

York: It is true that the Republican Party is at a various low point with voters. When I say that independents are starting to behave like Republicans, or move toward Republican positions, I think that's just true. But they don't like Republicans. Republicans were roundly rejected across the board in 2008 and a party does not get back into favor that quickly. So I would agree that these are independents who don't particularly like Republicans, they certainly don't call themselves Republicans, they're not joining the Republican Party. But I think it's true that their positions seem to be moving a little bit in the direction of the Republican Party, more so than the Democrats.

Perlstein: Are you saying that the lion's share of grass-roots conservatives who oppose what Barack Obama and the Democrats are doing on healthcare reform are doing so because of policy disagreements about policy differences on things like portability and tort reform?

York: Are you talking about in Congress?

Perlstein: No, I'm talking about conservative voters.

York: Well, you mean the conservative voters who voted for McCain?

Perlstein: No, I'm saying, the conservatives who oppose Barack Obama on health reform, are you really maintaining that it's just because they have different ideas about how portability should work, and whether or not there should be tort reform?

York: Oh, absolutely. Well, the biggest thing is they're worried. Most of them have healthcare, or healthcare insurance. They're either satisfied with it, or they're afraid of change. They seriously believe -- and I think they're right -- that it will lead to some sort of rationing.

Perlstein: You think that's policy? I mean, when Rush Limbaugh goes on the radio and says, "What Barack Obama says, he means the opposite in most cases." That's not a policy argument. This is what Karl says. This was a question of existential dispositions about legitimacy.

York: I would disagree with you. I think that they believe -- and you look at the poll numbers people 65 and older, they're very concerned --

Perlstein: You say people 65 and older because they're conservative.

Schaller: Let him finish, Rick.

York: If you look at people's concerns about healthcare, it is because they're worried that the quality of their care, and the cost of their care -- that the quality will diminish and the cost will go up. They are worried about that kind of change.

Agne: Let me point out one thing in the polls, which is the question of whether or not we need major healthcare reform. This has been asked in a few different ways. The polls that asked it consistently over time show that before Obama proposed healthcare reform, across the electorate -- conservatives to liberals, Democrats, Republicans -- majorities of all groups agreed that we needed major healthcare reform. Now that the debate has taken place, the number of independents who believe that we need major healthcare reform remains over 75 percent. The number of Republicans who believe we need major healthcare reform has dropped off the table, and now a large majority says we don't need reform. Obviously, the details of the healthcare reform debate have shaped that to some point, but independents still overwhelmingly maintain that we need some sort of reform. Republicans say, "We don't even need it anymore." So their attitudes about the fundamental issue have changed as Obama has come to champion it. I think there's something unmistakable there.

York: I think their attitudes about the issue have changed now that we have concrete arguments on the table. An argument always changes once there are concrete proposals on the table.

Schaller: I want to get to the fate of the GOP in the near-term or medium-term future. And I want to start with Byron because he's probably the best-sourced person here on the right, obviously. What's your sense of how establishment Republicans are viewing what we've been seeing in 2009? Are they worried about it? Are they encouraged about it? And then we'll get a response from Karl and Rick.

York: You can't separate what you saw in 2009 from what you saw in 2008. I think if you talked to almost any of them, they would say that they're in far better shape today -- not good shape, but better shape -- than they were after the election. I mean, clearly, 256 Democrats in the House, and 60 in the Senate, Republicans are a powerless minority in the government. But -- I'm trying to remember exactly when it was -- several months ago, the first Hill Republican said to me, "You know, we might be able to win next year." They were looking at trends thinking that Democrats were going to hurt themselves with a number of things they're pushing. This was after the cap-and-trade vote, where a lot of House Democrats felt they'd kind of walked the plank on it, and wanted to make sure the Senate had their back on it. So they began to see possible electoral success next year.

Now, whether that means they actually win: Some are that optimistic, some are not. But I think you're seeing -- tell me if I'm wrong, I think Charlie Cook is talking about a Republican pickup of 20 seats. None of us knows what's going to happen in the future. But my sense is that if you talk to these Republicans, they're actually a bit more -- much more optimistic than they were when they were dragged into office in January of this year.

Schaller: Karl? Rick?

Perlstein: The generic congressional ballot is basically the same as it was in 2006, 2008. Still about Democrats by 12, and you see that in the data.

York: This was in the most recent Wall Street Journal poll, in September. The Journal asked, "Would you rather see the elections next year result in a Congress controlled by Democrats or a Congress controlled by Republicans?" Democrats won, 48 to 45. That's a three-point lead. That lead was 19 points last year.

Schaller: Karl, you have anything to add?

Agne: Strategically, you have to look at this. As someone who's done these campaigns all over the country, Democrats are going to have a lot of difficult seats to win. They won a lot of seats that lean naturally more to the Republican Party. The problem for the Republicans here is that those voters threw out, in most cases, an incumbent or a party that had come to represent Washington and the establishment, and put in someone who was talking change, and in most cases who was younger and had more progressive and new ideas. I don't believe that most of those districts are now ready to turn around and embrace the Republican Party again. For the most part, they feel pretty favorable about the people they put in there. They don't expect them to change Washington overnight, and those folks who were elected in 2006, 2008, I believe are still in pretty good position in their districts.

There are certainly some seats that are going to be very hard for Democrats to hold on to. There are some seats that Republicans are going to lose too. I'll guarantee that they lose at least, probably, half a dozen seats that they hold right now. So the Republicans have difficulties there. But they're also running against people who are relatively new, don't carry a lot of the baggage of Washington yet, and are going to be harder to beat than those big-scale national numbers are going to tell you, when you get into those individual districts.

Schaller: All right, we have a couple minutes left, I'm going to give you guys an exit question. You can go in any order you want. Between the New York 23 Scozzafava-Hoffman race, and the Virginia or New Jersey gubernatorial and, I guess, state legislative races, what story line or lesson or surprise might you predict or foresee coming next week?

Perlstein: I think the story line is that the Republican Party is facing an insurgency on the part of voters who don't trust it.

York: My line would be that I think Republicans are actually, while not in good shape, are in better shape than we're led to believe. I think Karl earlier referenced a Washington Post poll that showed, I believe, Republican self-identification at 20. I personally do not believe that Republican identification could be at 20, and the party have such a strong lead in Virginia -- won by Barack Obama a couple months ago -- and be very competitive in New Jersey. So I think these numbers, again, while not good, are not as bad as you might think.

Agne: I think the most important thing, coming out of the three elections you named, all of which are rather anomalous in different ways, is the rise of third-party candidates. Daggett in New Jersey, Hoffman in New York 23 -- I think there's a message for both parties there. I think that the message is more alarming and more difficult for the Republican Party, given its minority status already, and the fact that it really should be contracted to its base supporters at this point. But its base supporters are even rebelling. And so the real question is, where is the center of gravity in the Republican Party, if they can't even hold folks in these elections?

Schaller: I want to thank our three panelists today.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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