Politics & Policy

Birch and Tea

A former RNC official looks at the Tea Party and sees the John Birch Society.

To toil at National Review is to know what it’s like to read “Buckley must be spinning in his grave!” at the beginning of umpteen letters, e-mails, blog posts, and tweets from less-than-gruntled critics supremely assured of their originality. The beauty of this evergreen — and its cheap presumptions about a great man — is that it can be wielded with equal convenience by trolls of every political persuasion and in response to any number of detected heresies.

But, with the whiff of bigotry and malice that so many smell in popular politics since the tranquil days when the last Bush effigies were burned, it has increasingly taken a single form, repeated over and over: viz., that WFB would be aghast that the conservative movement, along with the Republican party, has allied itself with the kooks and cranks of the Tea Party, especially since it was Buckley who so decisively expelled the Birchers from the movement, thereby saving it, in the early 1960s.

The latest entry in this genre comes from inside the family, as it were, in the person of former RNC research director David Welch. Welch writes on the New York Times op-ed page (because, where else?) that the GOP needs a similar house-cleaning now:

It is a shame that William F. Buckley Jr. passed away in 2008. The conservative movement could use him — or someone like him — right now.

In the 1960s, Buckley, largely through his position at the helm of National Review, displayed political courage and sanity by taking on the John Birch Society, an influential anti-Communist group whose members saw conspiracies everywhere they looked.

Fast-forward half a century. The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction. Republicans need a Buckley to bring us back.

Let’s pause for a second here and remember why Buckley took action. In the late 1950s, the Birch Society’s founder, Robert Welch, published a book claiming that the sitting president of the United States, a Republican, was a Communist agent. Other Birchers claimed that there were Red Chinese on the Mexican border prepping an invasion, or that the Council on Foreign Relations was actively plotting a U.S.-Soviet merger. These weren’t “dog whistles” or diffuse, partially articulated prejudices. They were empirical claims around which Birchers strategized and fundraised. Now sure, one can define the Tea Party widely and haphazardly enough that it encompasses every Bilderberg-hunter and Birther from the mountains to the prairies, I suppose. But it was quite simply concern over the size of government that gave the movement its political energy, and its greatest practical success was to help elect conservatives who share that concern. The fringy stuff is just that, fringy. The nuts are and ought to be shouted down. But they matter to the national policy conversation only as much as we pretend they do.

David Welch goes on to argue that, since Buckley was such an icon, no one person can replace him. Instead, what is needed is the reassertion of the “Establishment” to act as GOP bouncers, weeding out the Todd Akins and ensuring that only vetted, “sane” candidates win primaries.

There are a lot of problems with this. First, consider the electoral drubbing that is the proximate inspiration for Welch’s piece. Todd Akin wasn’t some unknown plucked from a turnip truck the day before the primary; he’d been in the House of Representatives since 2001. That was before his rape stupidity. After his rape stupidity and his subsequent cupidity in refusing to bow out, Akin was more or less cast out from polite Republican society. And he went on to lose to Senator Claire McCaskill — theretofore the most vulnerable of Democratic incumbents — and underperform Romney in Missouri by such large margins that I think it safe to say that Republican self-policing worked just fine, thank you.

Likewise, Richard Mourdock was more conservative than Senator Dick Lugar, whom he beat in the Indiana primary. But Mourdock wasn’t some foaming-at-the-mouth yokel scooped up from a revival meeting. He was a wildly popular state treasurer who won his last statewide race with 62 percent of the vote. Mourdock’s crime was inelegantly stating the perfectly reasonable view that the sanctity of life is not contingent on the circumstances of its conception, and doing so on the heels of Akin’s galactic idiocy.

Things were complicated in Senate seats Republicans took, too. Jeff Flake in Arizona won the primary as a consensus candidate of the “grassroots” and the “establishment.” Deb Fischer of Nebraska came out of nowhere in a three-way race in which the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth, and Sarah Palin each endorsed a different candidate. And so on.

What “establishment” could have cleaned all this up? While it’s true that in the 2012 cycle, the RNC, NRCC, NRSC, and the like averred a relatively “hands off” approach to primaries, the suggestion that there is a small group of party elites who can determine outcomes is itself the kind of conspiratorial thinking the Birchers favored. Even back in 2010 — call it the High Tea election — Rand Paul beat Mitch McConnell’s handpicked choice; Christine O’Donnell beat Mike Castle, a guy so “establishment” that it is said his arrival in the Senate was prefigured by a birthmark on his posterior in the shape of Nelson Rockefeller’s face. In Paul, we got a principled if unorthodox mover and shaker who is trying to reverse-engineer libertarianism from conservatism. In O’Donnell we got a former reality-show star and avowed Muggle who will make a charming anecdote for the retired political bloggers of 2032.

Picture me shrugging. I have not personally been happy with the way every contested Republican primary has broken over the last three years, and on several occasions, I think, Republican primary voters chose candidates who made winnable races losers.

Them’s the breaks. But it’s bizarre that Welch’s line of criticism assumes that the forces that produced primary wins for the Sharron Angles and Todd Akins of the world were causally distinct from those that produced general-election wins in 2009 and 2010 for the likes of Chris Christie (whom Welch lists as a paragon of the establishment) and Scott Brown, the two earliest portents of the coming wave.

The congeries of overlapping phenomena we call the Tea Party is too diffuse and contradictory to be talked about as a monolith. And the Republican nomination process — or hell, let’s just call it “democracy” — is too unwieldy for any establishment to master. It will deliver us Angles and Akins, Cruzes and Lees, and even the occasional Brown. Ever thus.

What’s for certain is that RINOs’ writing the Tea Party out of the picture is no healthier for the future of conservatism or Republicanism than is the inverse. Why, if Bill Buckley saw infighting like this he’d surely 

— Daniel Foster is National Review Online’s news editor


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