Fools rush in

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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You’re either for the tea party or you’re an establishment RINO.

That seems to be the choice everyone on the right must make. But it’s a false choice.

For years, I lamented the “good old boys” ethos in the GOP establishment, which (among other things) preferred Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio and Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey. Fast forward three years, and I now find myself in the position of saying the defund strategy (championed, in part, by Rubio) was absurd.

Clearly, I’m neither comfortable with the big-spending establishment Republicans of yesterday — or with the tea party radicals of today. What gives?

The problem is that we shouldn’t have to choose between these two things. It should be possible to elect smart, serious conservatives who want to repeal ObamaCare, reform entitlements, curb spending, and keep taxes low, etc. — all without the whining and the protesting and (oh yeah) the shutting down the government part.

In seeking to explain the current mess (without casting too much blame on grassroots conservatives), center-right journalists have largely employed a sort of equivalency argument which tacitly accepts this false choice paradigm.

The latest example comes from my friend and colleague Jim Antle, who, over at the American Conservative, writes this:

“In a very real sense, the Texas Republican who is most responsible for the current stalemate may not be Ted Cruz, but George W. Bush. In 2005, Republicans held the White House. They held both houses of Congress. Republican appointees entered the Supreme Court. The GOP enjoyed a 55-45 Senate majority.”

The fact that conservatives today have little to show for that is perhaps an explanation for the tea party’s recent behavior, but it most certainly isn’t an excuse.

As Antle (one of the shrewdest political observers on the right) essentially concedes, some of the most egregious sins were committed many years ago by people — like George W. Bush and Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert and Bill Frist — who are no longer relevant to the discussion.

Sometimes I think conservatives don’t appreciate the amazing strides they have made — or that things take time. It’s dangerous to overestimate yourself, but failing to appreciate your accomplishments can also lead to overreach. And it’s important to step back and note that just since 2009, conservatives (with the help of the tea party) have elected leaders like Scott Walker, Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley, Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Susana Martinez. I could go on.

One could imagine that, over time, these new conservative leaders could bring about some real change in the political culture. And I don’t mean by parliamentary trickery or procedural funny business, but by legitimately changing public policy, winning elections, and (hopefully) winning the argument.

Unfortunately, the tea party expects change to happen immediately. And I fear this has resulted in strangling some of these babies in the crib.

So why did this have to happen?

While Antle (and others) hypothesize that this lack of patience is because grassroots conservatives have been burned before, I suspect that is only partly true. There’s nothing like the zealotry of the convert, and many of the most ardent tea party folks are a). former liberals, or b). formerly apathetic citizens who were awakened after 9-11, the fiscal crisis and bailouts, and/or Obama’s election. (Note: Here I’m talking about rank-and-file grassroots conservatives — not the DC-based outside groups who are leading them.)

Many in the tea party, I suspect, are secretly ashamed that they allowed this country to get into a position where our debt is almost insurmountable. And now — having little political experience or patience (or a connection to what one might call a Burkean or traditional conservative political worldview) — they are in a hurry to make up for lost time.

Sometimes people really do need prodding. Sometimes, lazy or timid leaders need someone to light a fire. But sometimes, it’s wise to bide your time and to realize that only fools rush in. True wisdom is in knowing the difference.

Matt K. Lewis