Tea Party spawns GOP nightmare: How it's already ruining the party's '16 strategy

GOP elites want Americans to think the party's boring and safe again. Maybe someone should notify the Tea Party

Published January 23, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Ga.                   (AP/David Goldman)
Tea Party supporter William Temple of Brunswick, Ga. (AP/David Goldman)

If you’re understandably perplexed by the Republican Party’s apparent decision to enter the post-Obama era by nominating either another member of the Bush dynasty, or another version of Mitt Romney, there’s at least one way to think about it that might help explain the seemingly inexplicable. Put simply, the leaders of the GOP, the people who tend to be referred to as “the establishment,” fervently believe that in order to win in 2016, Republicans will have to convince voters that the party is once again what it was for much of the 20th century: safe, staid and, in a word, boring.

Of course, in a perfect world, Republicans would rather their presidential candidate be seen as a charismatic dynamo similar to Barack Obama in 2008 (or Ronald Reagan in the final weeks before Election Day 1980). But Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the party’s de facto chief strategist, would likely consider a GOP nominee who reminds voters of a suburban accountant nearly as good — especially after eight years of tumult under a Democratic president. Thus the appeal of your Jeb Bushes and Mitt Romneys — and thus the establishment’s aversion to more fire-breathing types like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. 

The plan is obviously cynical, but it’s also pretty savvy. It’s a testament to not only how much attention the party leaders pay to controlling the media narrative, but also how little they pay to, y’know, actual policy. And if all the GOP had to do between now and November ’16 is keep troublemakers like Paul, Cruz and Mike Huckabee at a distance from the party’s nomination, you’d have to consider it in a strong position to win back the White House, on the strength of voter fatigue with the Democrats, if nothing else.

But here’s the problem: There’s this thing called Congress, which is now the full responsibility of the GOP. And while there are plenty of GOPers in Congress who care deeply about which party holds 1600 Pennsylvania, there are also more than a few who think they were elected to change Washington. They answer to conservative activists who will no longer trim their sails so a RINO can enjoy free flights on Air Force One. And some of the issues these folks want to talk about won’t jibe with that nice accountant-next-door narrative establishment Republicans have been building.

You could make an argument that this barely subterranean point of tension was brought closer to the surface on Day 1 of the new Congress, when the GOP decided to kick off a multi-part plan to manufacture a fiscal crisis for Social Security in order to, ultimately, push through benefit cuts to what is arguably the most popular government program in U.S. history. But you’d be on even firmer ground if you just focused on what the GOP’s been up to in the past week. Take the vote in the House on Thursday to drastically curtail federal funding for abortions (which is already paltry), which passed more or less on a party-line vote, and which the White House has already said it will veto if it ever reaches Obama’s desk. Symbolic and envelope-pushing measures intended to inspire a big fight over the right to choose is the kind of stuff that thrills the Tea Party, needless to say; but it’s not what you’d expect to hear from that nice accountant next door. And that goes double for weird and recurring ontological conversations about the definition of rape.

Or if you’d rather look at the Senate, where the aforementioned McConnell is nominally in control, think about Wednesday’s vote on climate change — namely, whether it exists and, if so, to what degree it’s humanity’s fault. While it’s true that only one senator, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, felt compelled to disagree with the contention that the Earth’s climate is warming, most Republicans voted against a provision that would credit humankind with “significantly” contributing to the problem. That is, needless to say, wildly at odds with scientific consensus across the globe; and dismissing the conclusions of essentially all of the world’s qualified scientists is yet another thing your nice neighbor-accountant would be unlikely to do.

To be fair, the Senate vote on climate change wasn’t something Republicans in the Senate forced on McConnell. Instead, it was an example of the kind of thumb-in-the-eye procedural move that the Senate’s now-minority Democrats will be able to pull off every once in a while that has no legislative significance but can, at its best, make the difference between the parties crystal clear. All the same, whatever short-term damage Democrats were able to inflict on the GOP paled in comparison to that which it brought on itself, in the form of Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe’s contention that those who think anthropogenic climate change is a reality are disrespecting God. Which is, again, not the kind of talk the GOP establishment wants to hear during this current, boring-is-best rebrand. 

Now, the chances of anyone remembering any of these stories a few years from now are admittedly rather slim. So the point isn’t to say that Republicans won’t be able to succeed in 2016 because of one of the countless nutty things Inhofe’s said. What these stories underline, though, is that GOP leadership is going to find, for the umpteenth time in recent years, that persuading voters who’ve come to associate Republicans with the Tea Party that the days of Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush have returned will be much easier said than done.

Indeed, it’s a safe bet that the sentiment behind this Thursday quote from Republican congressman Charlie Dent, a relative moderate, will be echoed more than a few times by the GOP establishment between now and the next presidential election: "Week one, we had a Speaker election that didn't go as well as a lot of us would have liked. Week two, we spent a lot of time talking about deporting children, a conversation a lot of us didn't want to have. Week three, we're debating reportable rape and incest — again, not an issue a lot of us wanted to have a conversation about. I just can't wait for week four."

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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