Here’s a blueprint for a better tea party strategy.
I am still mourning last week’s upset victory by incumbent Mississippi Republican Senator Thad Cochran over his tea party aligned primary challenger, Chris McDaniel. But like a good American optimist, I am also trying to learn from it. And what I’ve learned is this: It’s time for the tea party movement to switch to Plan B. The revolution we conservatives seek is going to take longer than expected.
When it comes to electing conservatives, the tea party has hit a wall. For five years, it has sought to elect a more principled brand of conservative at all levels, but with only a few clear electoral wins to date and no true policy victories.
Cochran’s retention is particularly galling, because the 41-year incumbent and “king of pork” had to rely on Democrats to win in a nominally Republican but actually open primary. His appeals to voter greed and hints that his opponent is a racist say a lot about the weakness, and ugly tenacity, of today’s GOP establishment. If this is the best that pro-business Republicans have to offer, there’s little reason for pro-market Republicans to change their message. But clearly they will need to change their strategy.
In response to the tea party, the GOP has shifted rightward rhetorically; but its actual policy agenda still hasn’t changed that much. The national conversation of three years ago — about how best to cap the debt, balance the budget, slow the growth of Medicare and Medicaid and generally shrink and re-limit the federal government — has dissolved into small-beer discussions about how best to appeal to middle-class voters. Gone is the passion to stop chronic debt, easy money and endless tax hikes. Now it’s just bigger child tax credits for parents and more flex-time for working mothers. Soccer moms, call your office.
In May, I attended the unveiling of the new manifesto of “reform conservatism,” “Room to Grow,” and eagerly read the glossy, colorful 120-page policy agenda, compiled for the Young Guns Network by Pete Wehner, Yuval Levin and several thinkers at the American Enterprise Institute. The book’s subtitle is “Conservative Solutions for a Limited Government and a Thriving Middle Class” — pretty sexy for this sort of document. But alas, I had to feel sorry for the authors, as I kept searching in vain for ideas that would actually limit the government, or reforms that would actually protect the middle class from government-caused inflation and excessive public debt. Indeed, I can find no mention of these things.
To be fair, “Room to Grow” contains a lot of good ideas in a host of areas, and a sound chapter on health care reform (my main area of expertise) by James Capretta. A pair of fairly good bookend chapters, by Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru, touch on the critical question of how to restore constitutional government, although they seem to shy away from embracing specific constitutional amendments to bring it about.
Overall, “Room to Grow” seems to be an earnest and thoughtful attempt by the best minds of the GOP establishment to respond to, and redirect, the tea party rebellion away from confrontation and demands for constitutional reform, and into more incrementalist and, they seem to assume, more electorally promising channels. Despite its sexy subtitle, the plan is not really about limited government, but rather about streamlining Big Government in certain areas, while trying to harness it for “middle-class” ends. While adopting some of the rhetoric of anti-cronyism, the authors hesitate to challenge the redistribution of wealth. Rather, they seek to make such redistribution more “family-friendly.”
More promising — and I must admit, surprising — is the current push by congressional Republicans to kill off the Export-Import Bank, a kind of taxpayer-sponsored ATM for large employers. It’s a tangible sign that the party of big business may actually be reversing itself on crony capitalism. If so, it’s smart politics, because opposing cronyism is one of the few issues on which the tea party and the Occupy movement agree — together, of course, with (virtually) everyone in between.
But at this rate, it’s clearly going to be many election cycles before the conservative movement can achieve its goals. Realistically, it’s time for Plan B. What the tea party needs is a strategy that enables it to steer national debates until it can finally hold the reins of power, which may be a long time in coming. Here are my own suggestions for such a strategy.
1. Take the long view: Conservatives should “keep an army in the field.” Their war is far from over. The problems that brought the tea party into existence have not been solved, and if anything have gotten worse:
- A $17 trillion debt, headed toward Greece-like levels in the next decade.
- Out-of-control entitlements that, if not reformed, will bankrupt Uncle Sam within the next generation.
- Easy money policies and misguided regulations that ensure recurring financial bubbles and stock-market crashes.
- Relentless federal encroachments on the private sector, especially in health care and education.
- A steady diminution of private property rights.
- Illegal privacy invasions by the NSA.
- Intolerance of political dissent at the IRS.
- Incipient inflation.
- Endemic unemployment.
- Illegal immigration.
- Voter fraud.
- And of course, ever-higher taxes on “the rich.”
2. Pick your spots: Grassroots activists can’t and shouldn’t try to solve every problem on that list, all at once. Better to focus on a few clear targets of opportunity, like Obamacare, NSA spying and IRS harassment. These debates can be used to inform the electorate, in tangible ways, about the very real dangers of unlimited government.
2. Help Republicans take the Senate: This idea is slightly distasteful, given how the most forceful opposition to tea party ideas and candidates has come from the ranks of Republican senators. But firing Harry Reid, D-Nevada, as senate majority leader is an unavoidable necessity for progress on any conservative agenda. And while, yes, it would be nice for Republicans to have the gavels in Congress and new, more principled conservative leaders to wield them, the gavels are probably worth having in their own right. If nothing else, a Senate GOP majority will force the establishment to put up or shut up. No more excuses about why moving a conservative agenda is impossible or futile.
3. Don’t go “third party”: Forming a third party won’t help, and could easily hurt. Our Constitution naturally produces a two-party system, and state laws written by the two major parties firmly encrust those two parties’ privileged status. Third parties are relegated to serving as spoilers and gadflies. The best way forward, then, for conservatives is to keep trying to influence and ultimately take over the GOP.
4. Work from the bottom up: The tea party should focus on taking over the local GOP party machinery, nominating and electing its own candidates, and using local and state offices to push for sensible reforms. This bottom-up approach brought about the historic 1996 welfare reform, and we’ll need to follow a similar path to bring about much-needed reforms of federal health care and education programs.
One way to make progress here is to get more states to pass the so-called Health Care Compact, which, if approved by Congress, would entitle participating states to an annual mega-block grant. The states would then use that money to provide health care services within their borders. In effect, one-quarter of the federal budget would be devolved to the states, assuming all states opt in. Nine states have approved the Compact to date. Make it 26, and Congress will feel compelled to respond. Even if the only result is the block-granting of Medicaid to the states, it would be a huge conservative win.
5. Abolish open and jungle primaries: Cochran retained his seat thanks to an open primary, in which Democrats were allowed to help select the Republican nominee. The open primary is one of several Progressive Era reforms designed to remove the influence of political parties as a filter or check on the popular will (and especially on the popular will to redistribute wealth). Another such “reform” is the jungle primary, in which all candidates of all parties are forced to run on a single ballot, with only the top two vote-getters advancing to the general election. That obviously advantages the dominant party in an uncompetitive constituency.
In principle, government meddling in the private affairs of political parties violates the free association rights of citizens and effectively puts the government in charge of the voters, rather than the other way around. Parties should be free to pick their own nominees by their own rules, provided they don’t discriminate against anyone’s natural or civil rights.
Suppose Republicans were to win on voter ID, everywhere. What difference would it make, so long as Democrats could still vote in Republican primaries and keep Republicans off the general election ballot in heavily Democratic districts? Rules matter.
6. Outflank Washington: To me, the biggest lesson of the past five years is that salvation will not come from Washington. When it does come, it will be from the states, in the form of coordinated demands for the devolution of power, backed up by constitutional amendments codifying the same. Washington is broken and will not reform itself. The encrusted power of a bipartisan Beltway establishment beholden to K Street and Wall Street will make sure of that. Conservatives need a workaround.
While some on the right have turned to old ideas like state nullification of unpopular federal laws, or a national tax boycott to protest government overreach, these ideas don’t have a good track record of success, and in any case can’t undo everything wrong with Washington. States can’t nullify a bad treaty or executive order, for example. No, to secure the reforms the country really needs, we will need formal constitutional changes (alas!). If we want a balanced budget amendment, or term limits, or devolution, we must earn it the old-fashioned way and follow the prescribed constitutional path.
And there’s only one such path open to us: an Article V convention of states for proposing amendments. A Convention of States — often erroneously described as a “constitutional convention” — would not be dangerous, as some opponents of the idea allege, arguing from faulty premises, both legal and historical. Rather, such a convention is the Founder’s preferred remedy for an extreme situation like ours, where a corrupt Congress stands in the way of needed reforms. Article V should be called the “In Case of Emergency Break Glass Clause.” The emergency is upon us.
What have we got to lose? For the tea party, presently stalled on every front, the answer is: “Nothing.”
Dean F. Clancy, a former senior Republican official in Congress and the White House, writes on U.S. health reform, budget and constitutional issues. Follow him at deanclancy.com or on twitter @deanclancy.