A good night for the White House

Jamie Dettmer Contributor
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There hasn’t been much to cheer up the White House in recent weeks, but last night’s Tea Party upset in Delaware’s GOP Senate primary must have prompted some pretty big smiles in the West Wing. “Tea Party Scores Big” was the Washington Post headline this morning. But the headline could easily have been: “Big Night for the White House.”

Tea Party activists won’t feel that way. From their perspective they are shaking up politics and disproving Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dismissive interpretation of the Tea Party as just “Astro-turf “ and “not really a grass-roots movement.” As Tea Party victor Christine O’Donnell said last night after her defeat of veteran GOP congressman Mike Castle, there will be “no more politics as usual.”

Add O’Donnell’s stunning victory to the string of embarrassments the Tea Party has been handing out to the Republican establishment this year, from Joe Miller’s trouncing of Sen. Lisa Murkowski to last spring’s Tea Party victory over Sen. Robert Bennett at the Utah Republican state convention, and it is hard for Tea Party activists not to think that history is on their side.

Certainly there are pollsters and commentators eager to confirm that view. Writing in the Washington Examiner, pollster Scott Rasmussen and political consultant Douglas Schoen launched on a breathless paean to the Tea Party’s importance, arguing that the movement is “demonstrating a level of activism and enthusiasm that is both unprecedented and arguably unique in recent American political history.”

While they are right to castigate the press for dismissing the movement earlier this year, and while they are surely correct in arguing that the Tea Party has been “one of the most derided and minimized and, frankly, most disrespected movements in American history,” I am not convinced that the Tea Party movement is that different from the third-party challenge of Ross Perot back in 1992.

Many of the things claimed by the Tea Party were also claimed by the Perot movement — one as inchoate as the Tea Party. It was going to shake up politics and repaint the political landscape permanently. The activists were highly engaged, incredibly enthusiastic and glowing with the self-righteous belief that their time had come. And what happened? The Perot movement became a major reason why George H.W. Bush lost to Bill Clinton.

And that is exactly what the Tea Party is likely to achieve. Their victories are not over the Democrats, supposedly their real foes. Their triumphs are over party allies and each time they win they are underscoring the civil war that continues to rage within the GOP, thereby weakening Republican prospects come November.

O’Donnell inadvertently made that point in her victory speech last night: “This is more of a cause than a campaign.” Causes tend not to do too well when it comes to general and congressional elections and they can inflict incredible harm on the party they are trying to capture. The anti-Vietnam War movement did no favors to Democrats and actually helped Richard Nixon get elected president in 1968. The ugly anger of the Buchanan Brigades and their challenge to Bush in the 1992 primaries only added to the hurdles the incumbent president had to clear.

Compare the poll numbers Rasmussen and Schoen outline in their article. One of their surveys finds that nearly one quarter (24 percent) of Americans self-identify as members of the Tea Party movement. That’s about how well the Perot movement was polling in the summer of 1992.

Admittedly, the Perot movement was taking votes and support away from the GOP; Tea Party activists claim they will bring votes to the Republicans come November. But is this really true? Most Tea Party activists vote GOP when push comes to shove and for every new vote they may attract to a Republican candidate, they will turn off an independent voter or centrist who could have been enticed to vote GOP.

Take a look at what happened to John McCain’s presidential prospects after Sarah Palin joined the ticket. Yes, he surged in the polls for a few days after his pick, but once the broader electorate got to know Palin, his numbers plummeted.  She was meant to reflect McCain’s “change credentials” and help him appeal to urban women. In fact, her selection was a turning point in the 2008 presidential campaign and helped Barack Obama win the election.

Senior Republicans know this. Last night, the silence from GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, who issued no statement congratulating O’Donnell, was telling. O’Donnell’s win in Democrat-tilted Delaware has jeopardized the GOP’s chances of winning the Senate seat there in the fall. She is too conservative for the state and the Tea Party is too conservative for a lot of the electorate.

Earlier this week I suggested that President Obama would be hard pushed to reverse the GOP tide. Last night he might have found a new ally in the Tea Party. Yup, it was a good night for the White House.

Jamie Dettmer is a former political writer for The Times and The Sunday Telegraph. He blogs at www.jamiedettmer.com.