GOP's post-Obama problem: Why they're lost without him — and with the electorate he helped create

The establishment vanquished the Tea Party by drinking its poison — but has no plan for life after this president

Published May 26, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell                         (AP/Charles Dharapak)
Barack Obama, Mitch McConnell (AP/Charles Dharapak)

With the 2014 congressional primary season almost behind us, the conventional wisdom has hardened: The Republican establishment has vanquished its Tea Party tormentors. The progressive response to that narrative — that the establishment only “won” by capitulating to the Tea Party — is hardening, too. I want to challenge that a little.

When North Carolina State Sen. Thom Tillis won the GOP Senate nomination in early May, it seemed ridiculous to claim the Tea Party had been defeated, though he technically had a Tea Party rival: Tillis was as extreme as his opponent, supporting personhood legislation and tax cuts for the wealthy, opposing immigration reform and boasting that he’d personally stopped the state’s Medicaid expansion. I argued at the time that the story was not the Tea Party’s defeat, but its victory: the extent to which it had taken over the Republican establishment.

That didn’t seem true in the wake of Tuesday night’s election results, particularly in Kentucky. Credit where it’s due: Mitch McConnell crushed Matt Bevin. Sure, he did it by courting his Tea Party junior Sen. Rand Paul and by sliming and outspending Bevin. And sure, he won by a smaller margin than any incumbent GOP senator who’d faced a primary in the last 80 years.

But he won, even after making a deal with Harry Reid to reopen the government that was supposed to be his undoing. So did Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, a Boehner ally with a Tea Party rival, while in Georgia, the three candidates tied to the Tea Party lost, to two more polished and mainstream conservatives, Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue, who face a July run-off. And looking ahead, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Kansas’s Pat Roberts and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander look likely to beat back Tea Party challengers. In 2010, when even conservative incumbents like Utah’s Bob Bennett and South Carolina’s Bob Inglis lost their seats in Congress, all of those races likely would have turned out differently.

Something’s changed, and liberals can’t ignore it. Democrats won't be running against neophytes or crackpots likely to self-destruct before November. Yet the GOP establishment’s short-term wins mask a long-term nightmare: The party has no real plan for American politics once Barack Obama goes off to enjoy a long retirement, or for the electorate he’s helped create.

In the most basic terms, the GOP establishment's victory can be described like this: The party base is no longer falling for any wingnut Tea Party crackpot who rails against Obama and Washington. There will be no Christine O’Donnells or Sharron Angles this election cycle (though I wouldn’t rule out a sexist gaffer a la 2012 losers Richard Mourdock or Todd Akin). And while the “GOP establishment” has gone Tea Party, incorporating almost all of its most extreme political and policy demands, some in the Tea Party have gone establishment: The New York Times last week hailed the Ivy League, corporate credentials of Tea Party Senate nominees Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who are smooth-talking, expensive-suited operators in the mold of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, not Texas primary loser Steve Stockman, who was easily vanquished by John Cornyn in the first big 2014 loss for the Tea Party.

That won’t make them any more reasonable if they get to Congress, of course, but it might make them less likely to self-destruct before they get there.

Certainly the Tea Party “brand” has become far less popular than in its 2010 heyday:  Today, just 15 percent of voters polled by CBS News say they are supporters of the movement - the lowest since pollsters began asking about the faction in February 2010. The tea party reached peak support (31 percent) in November 2010, and has fallen ever since. Even among Republicans, Tea Party backing has fallen to 32 percent, down from a high of 55 percent in July 2010. What does that mean?

To know what it really means, it would help to define what the Tea Party meant in 2010, and today. Chris Hayes came as close as anyone to defining it during his MSNBC election coverage Tuesday night: opposition to “runaway” government spending, particularly the 2009 stimulus, combined with hatred of “Obamacare” as the ultimate symbol of big Democratic government.

That seemed correct, but Hayes left out one thing: irrational, implacable hostility to Obama himself, often fed by a wellspring of conscious and unconscious racism. The Obama election, combined with the Tea Party backlash, served to make the GOP clearly and unmistakably the party of white people, and it doesn’t look like that will change any time soon.

But in a few years, the GOP will lose the galvanizing and unifying issue of Barack Hussein Obama. It may be that some of the decline in the popularity of the Tea Party “brand,” even among even Republican voters, relates to that: More people recognize that hate him or not, the president won two elections, and he’s (probably) not going anywhere, rumblings about impeachment notwithstanding. Meanwhile, GOP voters know, because the GOP establishment has spent a lot of money telling them so, that the Tea Party cost Republicans control of the Senate. “Tea Party” no longer conjures up brave patriots in bright costumes, but losers who’ve cost the party elections, and whose Obama hatred not only failed to vanquish Obama but tainted the entire party with a toxic smog of racism.

So the shrill and amateurish nihilism that came to be associated with Tea Party politics has been rejected, while the Tea Party’s political and policy demands have mostly been met. Wingnut anti-immigration Rep. Steve King of Iowa (he of “calves the size of cantaloupes”) is kvelling that he’s now in the party mainstream when it comes to immigration. Sen. Rand Paul is telling his fellow Kentucky Tea Partiers that they’ll get everything from Mitch McConnell they’d have gotten from Matt Bevin – plus victory. Sen. Ted Cruz promises the party will stick to its anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage principles, or answer to him. And Rep. Trey Gowdy is firing up his new Benghazi hotrod, a gift from “establishment” Speaker John Boehner, for a wild ride through the fever swamps of anti-Obama, anti-Hillary Clinton conspiracies. If the GOP establishment wants to say that represents their "victory," we should believe it.

All of that leaves Republicans in the position Politico’s Todd Purdum correctly identified last week as “losing for winning.” Having ceded to the far right on issues like immigration reform, health care, climate change, tax reform, infrastructure spending and the minimum wage — often repudiating historically Republican ideas in the process — they are left with no way to reach out beyond the confines of the 48 percent of the voters — albeit 60 percent of white voters — they seem to have consolidated. Surveying the chances of “reform conservatism,” as embodied by the mostly toothless but occasionally interesting “middle class agenda” charted in the new report “Room to Grow,” the Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti was surprisingly candid about why it’s going nowhere:

The outreach Republicans make to single women and to minorities inevitably repels the groups that give the party 48 percent of the popular vote—Christians and seniors and men. As has been made abundantly clear, 48 percent of the popular vote does not a presidential victory make. But 48 percent is not quite something to sniff at either. That number can always go down.

“That number can always go down” is the fear that keeps Republicans from getting serious about long promised “outreach” to women, Latinos, African Americans or the LGBT community. Democrats, by contrast, gave up on their backward-looking quest to woo formerly Democratic blue collar white men, on display as recently as 2006 when party leaders boasted of recruiting “Macho Dems.” Over time, helped by an African-American presidential candidate with formidable personal charisma and political instincts, the party learned to embrace its multicultural future.

The Alison Lundergan Grimes vs. Mitch McConnell contest is a microcosm of the way the two parties have grappled with the changing electorate. Republicans have made elections safe for elderly white male incumbents, for now anyway, while Democrats are banking on a young college-educated woman, a pillar of their emerging coalition.

Still, Grimes could lose, and Democrats have to acknowledge that the GOP establishment’s victories over the Tea Party, as defined by blocking crazy, unseasoned neophytes from winning nomination, make the 2014 landscape more difficult. Though not impossible: Republicans are going to try to nationalize the election by using Obama-hatred one last time; Democrats ought to nationalize it by reminding the Obama coalition that a Republican-controlled Senate will paralyze the president for the rest of his term, and might even find ways to chip away at his legacy. He'll have his veto, but if enough nervous red-state Democrats joined efforts to unravel parts of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank regulations, they could do harm. A smart, tough campaign that’s at once a crusade to defend the president, expand economic opportunity and beat back voting rights restrictions might coax more of the 2012 electorate out to the polls in November.

But if Republicans prevail, they’ll face the 2012 electorate and then some in 2016. And they’ll likely be doing it with a cast of Tea Party characters, from Rand Paul to Ted Cruz to Rick Perry, since so-called “moderate” Chris Christie is almost certainly mortally wounded, and Jeb Bush only less so. The GOP has neither the people nor the policies to make them serious presidential contenders. And while I never disagree with Digby, here I do: I don’t think they’re entirely “winning by losing.” A party that can never compete for the White House can’t survive.

So let the GOP establishment savor its spring primary victories. It has no answer for its looming post-Obama political future. They’re dusting off the anti-Clinton playbook, but they may not find it works as well, beyond the angriest confines of their angry right-wing base. Call it the Tea Party or not, those folks will always be a problem for the Republicans. But they’re getting older, and crazier, and soon they’ll be gone. If it keeps pandering to that fringe, so will the Republican Party.

By Joan Walsh