Matt Lewis

The tea party schism over national security: Why it’s probably a good thing

Something different is afoot. At least, that’s how it feels to me. Conservatives elected during the recent tea party zeitgeist are starting to put policy differences ahead of symbolic unity. And that, I contend, is a sign of maturation. You may disagree.

The first time I noticed this was when Sen. Rand Paul publicly criticized Liz Cheney. This move felt symbolically important (to me, at least), because it meant that the Paleocon/Neocon schism was more important to Paul than the split between new and old, grassroots and establishment, truuuu conservatives and RINOs.

In other words, Paul wasn’t going to reflexively support a younger conservative (who tosses out red meat) just for the sake of doing it. He wasn’t going to conflate toughness with ideology. Political philosophy was more important to him.

Perhaps this was inevitable? Maybe it was bound to happen whenever it became impossible to avoid the disparate opinions conservatives hold on foreign policy.

But it seems like, until recently, at least, tea party conservatives would come to some consensus (or at least avoid publicly airing dirty laundry) over what constituted the conservative position. There might have been a few dissenters here and there, but generally speaking, this happened. It might have been because they viewed the “old establishment/ruling class” vs. the “new upstart” dichotomy as the defining issue of the day. Or maybe it was because even tea party darlings worried about being labeled RINOs if they dared to disagree with one of their own? Either way, Rand Paul appears to be willing to test this theory. Not only is he backing Enzi, but he’s also backing Mitch McConnell (though he is being careful.)

Could it be a harbinger of things to come?

Paul might be ushering in a new era. This new world seemed to be on on full display last night when conservative Members loosely labeled as “tea party” had a very public split over a failed amendment that would have (ostensibly) curtailed the NSA’s snooping.

The amendment was led by libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash and his allies, but was opposed by other conservatives like Rep. Michele Bachmann (who was head of the Congressional Tea Party Caucus) and Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton (who is widely viewed as a young and promising rising star).

To be sure, many will lament the fact that the tea party movement is splitting over such issues. They will cite Reagan’s 11th Commandment, and argue that conservatives should ignore such trifling differences and, instead, focus on defeating Obama’s agenda. But I see this as a sign of maturity. Choosing to stick together based primarily on superficial attributes such as newness and a shared affinity for hating Obama (as opposed to some shared positive worldview) seems arbitrary when compared with the real fights over important debates like national security versus liberty.