Newt’s victory is the tea party’s loss

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Sen. Rand Paul has said that Newt Gingrich “goes against everything the tea party stands for.” This might be an understatement.

The tea party originally stood for one simple but important message: Stop spending. For tea partiers, the “Troubled Asset Relief Program” or TARP was the litmus test and any Republican who supported it faced the wrath of the movement. Explained Utah tea party leader David Kirkham in May 2010:

I think it’s a matter of fiscal or financial responsibility … What the tea party people are about and the vote for TARP and the vote for the bailout was, in our opinion, pretty fiscally irresponsible, and that’s what’s raised the ire of most people.

At the time, Kirkham’s group was working to unseat Republican Senator Bob Bennett, who had voted for TARP. Kirkham’s efforts would eventually help elect tea party champion Sen. Mike Lee. When asked if the TARP-supporting incumbent deserved to lose his seat over just one vote, Kirkham replied:

That one vote was pretty toxic. That one vote affected a lot of things, changed the rules of the game. President Bush said that where we have to abandon free market principles to save the free market, and fundamentally, we just don’t agree. There’s just no way.

Tea party support for Newt Gingrich in South Carolina and elsewhere marks a new point — a low point — for the movement. When John McCain suspended his campaign in 2008 to go to Washington to support TARP, Gingrich said, “This is the greatest single act of responsibility ever taken by a presidential candidate and rivals President Eisenhower saying ‘I will go to Korea.’”

The tea party believed that TARP represented Washington at its most irresponsible. Gingrich believed the exact opposite. In fact, if you were to make a list of every big-government issue most tea partiers stand against — bank bailouts, healthcare mandates, cap-and-trade, you name it — Gingrich has been, or still is, on the opposite side.

Grassroots conservatives want a Republican nominee who will fight President Obama on issues like bailouts and healthcare mandates. Saturday, grassroots conservatives in South Carolina championed a Republican presidential candidate who has agreed with Obama on both of those issues. In the debates, Obama could even say that Newt was for forcing Americans to purchase health insurance before he was against it. And the president will be right.

When Gingrich called McCain’s support for TARP “the greatest single act of responsibility ever taken by a presidential candidate,” this was classic Newt-speak — Gingrich is a great talker and often speaks in bold and indeed “grandiose” terms. Newt sounds good. People like that. They respond to it. It inspires them. Ask Barack Obama.

But the tea party was supposed to be better than this. The tea party was supposed to stand for something more substantive.

When Gingrich dressed down CNN’s John King at the beginning of the debate last Thursday, Newt became an instant hero to many conservatives. This unquestionably helped deliver Gingrich his South Carolina victory. Most pundits and probably even Gingrich himself would not disagree with this analysis.

Gingrich won South Carolina because he berated the media — which conservatives rightly see as often being in cahoots with Obama. Gingrich won because conservatives want to see a forceful challenge to Obama. Conservatives don’t see this sort of fight coming from Mitt Romney. Conservatives don’t like Romney. But the divide between these two front-runners is entirely personality-based. On the actual issues, Gingrich and Romney are almost indistinguishable. Writes National Review’s Yuval Levin:

What stands out about Romney and Gingrich … Both of them are fundamentally moderates: Very wonky Rockefeller Republicans … both still very much exhibit the technocratic countenance of the Rockefeller Republican — a program for every problem …

Levin adds:

They’re also essentially in the same place politically — I can’t think of a single major issue on which Gingrich is more conservative than Romney …

Many tea partiers like Gingrich because he seems willing to “fight.” Here is where conservatives are most wrong about Gingrich. Gingrich always talks boldly. He did so when he went after John King. Newt talked boldly when he praised McCain for supporting TARP. Gingrich spoke boldly when he joined Nancy Pelosi on the couch to promote climate change legislation.

Speaking boldly has always been Newt’s “style.”

Gingrich’s “substance” is an entirely different matter. When the rubber hits the road for conservatives — and we come to the moments where Republicans might actually offer real spending cuts or reform — Gingrich always backs down. When the freshmen Republican class of 1994 arrived in Congress promoting the Contract with America, they were quickly told by the leadership (Gingrich) to cool their jets. Class of ’94 Congressman Mark Sanford has said that the GOP leadership stressed the freshmen were no longer in “campaign mode” but “governing mode.” When Rep. Paul Ryan offered an entitlement reform plan last year, virtually every conservative was onboard. Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.” When Ron Paul proposed $1 trillion in cuts in October, conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and others cheered. Gingrich called this proposal a “non-starter.”

Gingrich is not a fighter. He’s a talker. Right now is the time when the GOP presidential candidates are expected to at least lie to voters, promising them how much they will cut or shrink government. Yet, Gingrich already considers any of the substantive proposals offered by Republicans toward this end beyond the pale. Gingrich cuts great promos. He will not cut government.

The moment the tea party abandons its trademark “Stop spending” message, the movement loses its original independence and simply morphs back into the GOP machine — something both right and left critics always said would happen. Sen. Lindsey Graham bragged in 2010 that the tea party would “die out” because it had “no governing vision.” I have argued that as long as the tea party stands firmly against spending it will remain an indomitable force in American politics.

But is Sen. Graham now being proven right?

The tea party was a movement founded on the idea that voters should throw politicians’ big-government records back in their faces. The “governing vision” of the movement was to insist that Republicans envision a very small government. The moment tea partiers decide they are no longer concerned with actual limited-government issues and holding politicians’ feet to the fire, they essentially surrender their movement.

With Gingrich, as with Obama, there is a danger in mistaking articulation for wisdom. Yelling at John King is not a political philosophy and certainly not sufficient to win the next election. American politics before the tea party was mostly a popularity contest — and this was precisely what was wrong with much of American politics.

In 2009 and 2010, the tea party wanted America to know it had been seduced by a smooth-talking president with bad policies. In South Carolina Saturday, many in the tea party were seduced in the same manner.

Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.

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