By Frank Rich – New York Times.
IF there is one certain outcome to recent American elections, it’s this: The results will invariably prove most of the Beltway’s settled political narratives wrong.
Tuesday’s pre-midterms were no exception. We were told that all incumbents and Washington insiders were doomed, but Exhibit A, the defeat of Arlen Specter, was hardly a test case. The sui generis opportunist Specter lost to another incumbent, a congressman who has been a Democrat far longer than he has. We were also told — as we were, incessantly, in 2008 — that blue-collar white men in western Pennsylvania would flee the Democrats. But in the special House election there — Tuesday’s only Republican-vs.-Democrat battle — a million G.O.P. dollars and countless anti-Obama-Pelosi ads proved worthless. Not only did a Democrat win big, but that winner was a Washington insider’s insider, a longtime aide to the seat’s previous occupant, the quintessential pork baron John Murtha.
That said, it would be a mistake to overinterpret these results to spawn new, and equally bogus, narratives about rekindled Democratic prospects for November. The 2010 election was and is up for grabs. The only race with genuine long-term implications last week was Rand Paul’s victory by a margin of some 24 percentage points in Kentucky’s Republican senatorial primary.
The “Randslide,” in the triumphalist lingo favored by Sean Hannity at Fox News, was the Tea Party’s first major election victory. As Charles Hurt, another conservative commentator, wrote in another Rupert Murdoch organ, The New York Post, this was no “qualified” win by a moderate with Tea Party support, like Scott Brown in Massachusetts. “What we saw Tuesday night in Kentucky,” Hurt enthused, “was a pure, unalloyed victory for the Tea Party” in which “the son of the quirky congressman from Texas trounced the establishment candidate who had been groomed and supported by leaders at the highest levels of the Republican Party.”
Ain’t that the truth. The opponent whom Paul humiliated, Trey Grayson, was the protégé of Mitch McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator and the G.O.P. Senate leader. Grayson was also endorsed by Dick Cheney, Rudy Giuliani, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and John Cornyn, the Texas senator who presides over the Republicans’ Senate campaign committee (and its purse strings). But Paul had the supporters who matter, Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, the tag team that nowadays runs the conservative movement for fun and profit.
Unlike Scott Brown, whose Tea Party cred consisted mainly of opposition to the health care bill and a pickup truck, Paul is one of the movement’s card-carrying founding fathers. From the start, he openly defined himself as a Tea Party tribune, and its followers embraced him (and contributed to him) as their uncompromising avatar. Now, after months of debate about what this movement is and isn’t, Paul’s victory provides clear-cut answers.
The Tea Party is not merely an inchoate expression of a political mood, or an amorphous ragtag band of diverse elements, or a bipartisan cry of dissatisfaction with the supposed “government takeover” of health care. The Tea Party is a right-wing populist movement with a specific ideology. It resides in the aging white base of the Republican Party and wants to purge that party of leaders who veer from its dogma. But divisive as the Tea Party may be within the G.O.P., it’s hardly good news for President Obama and the Democrats either.
Paul is articulate and hard-line. When he says he is antigovernment, he means it. Unlike McConnell, he wants to end all earmarks, including agricultural subsidies for a state that thrives on them. (He does vow to preserve Medicare payments, however; they contribute to his income as an ophthalmologist.) He wants to shut down the Department of Education and the Federal Reserve. Though a social conservative who would outlaw all abortions, he believes the federal government should leave drug enforcement to the states.
It’s also in keeping with this ideology that Paul wants the federal government to stop shoveling taxpayers’ money into wars. He was against the war in Iraq and finds the justification for our commitment in Afghanistan “murky.” He believes that America’s national security is “not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon.”
No wonder he didn’t get Cheney’s endorsement; Paul also opposes the enhanced government surveillance mandated by the Patriot Act. The Tea Party is a rolling rebuke to the neocons’ quarter-century dominance of the G.O.P. Only three months ago, Ron Paul, who shares his son’s un-Cheney national security views, won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, ending Mitt Romney’s three-year winning streak.
With Rand Paul, we also get further evidence of race’s role in a movement whose growth precisely parallels the ascent of America’s first African-American president. The usual Tea Party apologists are saying that it was merely a gaffe — and a liberal media trap — when Paul on Wednesday refused to tell Rachel Maddow of MSNBC that he could fully support the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Paul has expressed similar sentiments repeatedly, at least as far back as 2002.
His legal argument that the federal government cannot force private businesses to desegregate is the same used by Barry Goldwater, a frequently cited hero of Paul’s, when the conservative standard-bearer voted against the Civil Rights Act at its inception. It’s all about the Constitution, not race, you see. Under fire, Paul ultimately retreated from this stand — much as the new Republican governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, finally withdrew his April proclamation saluting Confederate History Month. But not before both men’s messages reached their intended demographic.
Still, it’s Paul’s brand of populism, not his views on Jim Crow or Iran, that are most germane to the Tea Party’s birth and its future — both within the G.O.P. and as a force that will buffet Obama and the Democrats. Paul most abundantly embodies the movement’s animus when he plays on classic American-style class resentment. His campaign loved to deploy the full name of his opponent, Charles Merwin Grayson III, a Harvard-educated banker’s son. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Paul said the voters’ message was to “get rid of the power people, the people who run the show, the people who think they’re above everybody else” — or, as he put it on an earlier occasion, the establishment who “from their high-rise penthouse” look down on and laugh at the “American rabble.”
That Paul gave his victory speech in a “members only” country club is no contradiction to white Tea Partiers. Their anger is directed at a loftier club that excludes them as well: the big-government and big-money elites partying together in that high-rise penthouse. At the Utah state G.O.P. convention this month, the mob shouted “TARP! TARP! TARP!” as it terminated the re-election bid of the conservative Senator Robert Bennett. It was Bennett’s capital crime to vote for a bailout of Wall Street’s high-flying bankers.
Mitch McConnell, long a go-to Republican for corporate interests in Washington, didn’t just vote for TARP but called it “one of the finest moments in the history of the Senate.” That’s why he’s running around now claiming that the Senate’s financial reform bill is another “bailout” catering to Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. In fact that bill is an attempt, however flawed, to police those whose reckless and possibly criminal behavior brought down the economy. McConnell has zero interest in curbing Wall Street. He just hopes that if he keeps screaming “bailout” in a crowded Capitol, the Tea Party crowd will forget that he (and a Republican president) helped engineer the mother of all bailouts. John McCain, who also voted for TARP, may need a similar subterfuge to save his neck in Arizona.
It’s far-fetched to Democrats that Tea Party populists could possibly believe that the party of McConnell and Romney and Murdoch will in the end be moved to side with the little guy against the penthouse powers that are the G.O.P.’s traditional constituency and financial underwriter. Some Democrats also find it far-fetched that Paul could repeat his victory this fall, given how extreme his views are even for a state as reliably red as Kentucky.
But the enthusiasm gap remains real. Tea Partiers will turn up at the polls, and not just in Kentucky. Democrats are less energized in part because even now the president has not fully persuaded many liberal populists in his own party that he is on their side. The suspicion lingers that a Wall Street recovery, not job creation, was his highest economic priority upon arriving at a White House staffed with Goldman alumni. No matter how hard the administration tries to sell health care reform and financial reform as part of the nation’s economic recovery, these signal achievements remain thin gruel for those out of work.
The unemployment numbers, unlikely to change drastically by November, will have more to say than any of Tuesday’s results about what happens on Election Day this year. Yes, the Tea Party is radical, its membership is not enormous, and its race problem is real and troubling. But you can’t fight an impassioned opposition merely with legislative actions that may bear fruit in the semi-distant future. If the Democrats can’t muster their own compelling response to the populist rage out there, “Randslide” may reside in our political vocabulary long after “Arlen Specter” is leaving “Jeopardy” contestants stumped.