Let’s not sugarcoat it: This has been a bad year for the tea party.
“We are going to crush them everywhere,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed. He did his part by easily dispatching conservative primary challenger Matt Bevin Tuesday.
The reasons for the tea party movement’s problems have been well rehearsed. From primary challenges to budget fights, they failed to pick their battles. They supported some bad candidates. Groups may have spent their donors’ money unwisely.
Fed up after five years of Barack Obama and seven years of Harry Reid’s Senate, even many Republicans — fairly or not — were skittish about voting for tea party candidates when there was any question about whether they would be the strongest in the general election.
The thought process likely went something like this: “Gee, I really like Greg Brannon. His views on the Constitution and limited government are closer to mine. But if this race gets down to the wire, do I really trust him to pull it off in November? Err, Thom Tillis it is.”
Consequently, it’s fashionable to hate on the tea party. In fact, it has been as long as the tea party has existed. But let’s not forget that these angry conservative populists have gotten a few big things right.
1.) Nobody is entitled to hold any elected office. Politicians, it should go without saying, serve at the pleasure of their constituents. Sure, political parties have better things to spend their money on than infighting. But there is something seriously wrong with the idea that the only way an incumbent should leave office is in a pine box or a wave election washing in the opposing party.
Incumbents should fight to prove themselves worthy to their constituents just as much as anyone else. Consider Mitch McConnell. Before the tea party, he would have campaigned on bringing the bacon home to Kentucky. Instead he supported the drone filibuster; plotted to repeal Obamacare; opposed the proposed war in Syria; hired Ron and Rand Paul’s campaign manager; and voted for the younger Paul’s to-the-right-of Paul Ryan budget plan.
Whether he meant any of this is in the long term less important than whether Republicans feel compelled by their voters to behave in this manner. Scott Brown — arguably the least conservative politician elected under the tea party banner — had it right. It’s the people’s seat.
2.) Republicans were spending too much taxpayer money. Before there was Barry Obama’s $1 trillion stimulus packages, there was Dubya Bush’s $1 trillion wars. There was also the deficit-financed Medicare prescription drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program and earmark-laden transportation, farm and energy bills.
George W. Bush joins the dubious company of Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter as the three chief executives to preside over real increases in both defense and non-defense spending at the same time. Under Bush, discretionary spending grew twice as fast as it did under Bill Clinton.
And it can’t all be blamed on Bush. After helping to balance the budget for the first time in 1969, congressional Republicans first squandered that legacy by proposing to outspend Bill Clinton in 1998. They created two new significant entitlement programs without reforming the ones already in existence. By 2005, the Cato Institute found, spending on the 101 largest federal programs Republicans promised to abolish in 1994 had instead grown 27 percent.