Politics & Policy

Don’t Get Distracted

There's no reason for Republicans to be pessimistic about November. Yet.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

‘November, November, November” is the song many right-of-center voters, activists, and politicians are singing, but although the socialization of health care is highly unpopular, the road to November won’t be a cakewalk for those who voted against it or would have done so. Even before that weekend’s vote, if that November song was playing, there would inevitably be a political veteran in the crowd grumbling under his breath, “If we don’t screw it up,” meaning we Republicans. And somewhere, some pessimist has already bought nails, not screws, with which to seal shut the Grand Old Party’s 2010/2012 political coffin.

Such pessimism, of course, is not called for. (Yet.) But someone somewhere had better be phoning key Republicans to scare them about the prospects.

All signs point to a good year for Republicans. Policywise, it’s not been so good, needless to say. The health-care loss was a serious one of paradigm-shaping proportions. But it also took a long time coming. The Democrats talked and talked and talked about it. Others warned and warned and warned about it. The only real surprise, frankly, was that it took the Democrats as long as it did to pull it off, given the numbers they have in Washington. 

Politically, the tide should turn a bit in Republicans’ favor. The Scott Brown victory in Massachusetts should be a precursor to many more victories, including ones in other unlikely places. Members of Congress who are running to keep their seats understand that. They also appreciate, however, that they have to have something to offer besides just being the other guy. They’ve got to be able to communicate a principled worldview tied to the constitutional principles that have kept our country strong and been a beacon for the life of our young nation thus far. They’ve got to pull off what Marco Rubio in Florida and Paul Ryan on the floor of the House have pulled off. They’ve got to inspire people to believe that there’s a reason to want them in Washington. Both Rubio and Ryan grasp that the things happening in Washington are identity-changing; with a few more votes like that health-care one, America won’t be the same country Rubio’s parents fled to from Cuba.

But there have been distractions from John Boehner’s “Hell, no!” to the left-wing beat the Democrats are marching arm in arm to, such as legitimate headlines about Michael Steele, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. This is what the predictive grumbling was about.

The real problem facing the Republican National Committee right now is not some bad spending decisions (which, by the way, the Democratic National Committee could easily trump with its national agenda, never mind its finances). The real threat facing the RNC has to do with tea. It’s a wholly unnecessary and completely avoidable pitfall, but if the RNC does not get its act together, it will be a real problem.

In a recent interview, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, sounded like he was flirting with the tea party as an actual political party and an alternative to the GOP. He told ABC’s Rick Klein: “I think the Republicans have to realize they’re not operating in a vacuum. Now, while Democrats may be in trouble coming into November’s election, the Republicans are not the only game in town.”

Whether or not Perkins or someone like him actually would actively encourage third-party alternatives, either among the grassroots or nationally, is almost immaterial. The fact is that he said it, it’s getting attention, and there’s surely no shortage of folks willing to make names for themselves as “tea-party candidates.” We’re already seeing candidates (running as Republicans) claiming the tea-party seal of approval in primaries across the country. In fact, during the recent Florida senatorial primary debate between Republicans Charlie Crist and the aforementioned Rubio, a question was raised about whether or not Rubio had that seal of approval. Such talk of tea-party imprimaturs is technically meaningless to anyone actually paying attention, as tea-party organizers who are being honest with you will admit; the whole point of the tea parties has not been to start a party or to be a central organizing force. So, sure, anyone can call himself a tea partier and say he doesn’t like one candidate or another. But not much political clout or threat comes with that.

That could change if the RNC doesn’t get its act together. Honestly, it’s unnecessary and completely avoidable. Judging by the tea-party events I’ve attended, the guy clamoring to ditch the Republican party may also be able to explain to you that Elvis is still alive — he’s not a representative tea partier. Polls have been bearing out what conversations with tea partiers or walking around their events could have told you: Tea partiers are Americans who line up with positions that tend to be Republican planks. The tea party could be an electoral godsend for Republicans: energized voters — some of whom haven’t voted in recent elections – with whom they have a lot in common. Unless, that is, seemingly undisputed bad management at the RNC continues to be a bottomless pit of distracting stories that beg someone to take the tea and run. Literally.

– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. She can be reached at klopez@nationalreview.com.

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