I was driving home on Wednesday and listening to the most popular local conservative talk radio show. The callers were infuriated at the tactics of the GOP establishment in Mississippi. As well they should be. It just isn’t smart for the party’s establishment to demonize its own base. I doubt that any politician is worth the resulting bad feelings, and I’m pretty sure Thad Cochran isn’t. What interested me was whether the conservative talk radio listeners and conservative activists who are so mad at the Republican establishment are mad enough to forgo easy emotional satisfaction and choose the harder road of displacing the GOP establishment by beating the establishment where it claims to be strongest.
In the Republican National Committee’s 2012 “autopsy,” the RNC presented itself as the voice of reason that was trying to win over the swing voters the Republicans need in order to win elections. It should be no surprise that the RNC-counseled lobbyist class and consultant class favored policies like deemphasizing social issues and “comprehensive immigration reform” (basically upfront legalization, delayed or nonexistent enforcement, and increased future low-skill immigration). You will notice that the fist name in the list of the RNC report’s authors was Henry Barbour. You will further notice that Henry Barbour was instrumental in Cochran’s reelection.
The relationship between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party has some similarities to the relationship between moderate (sometimes called “modern”) Republicans and insurgent conservative (sometimes derisively called “primitive”) Republicans in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the early 1960s, the moderate Republicans liked to mock their party’s conservatives as a “minority of a minority” (the Republicans being the smaller party according to voter identification). When Goldwater was nominated in 1964 and it became clear that the Republican party had a conservative (or at least a nonliberal) majority, the moderates changed tactics. They argued that a majority of a minority was still a minority and that only more-moderate Republicans could win the independent and Democratic voters that Republicans needed to win national elections. While there are many differences between the moderate Republicans of the 1960s and the Republican establishment of today, they have one thing in common. They both said insurgent conservatives had to go along. There were not enough conservatives. The most that conservatives could hope for was to be the junior partners in a coalition that was led by the Rockefeller Republicans (in the 1960s) of the Barbour machine (today).
A funny thing happened. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the conservatives who expanded the Republican party’s appeal by bringing in new constituencies like evangelical Christians, suburbanites who had lost touch with party politics, and formerly Democratic constituencies like urban working-class whites and southern whites (these are partly overlapping groups). Conservatives proved that they had at least equal appeal to voters outside the existing Republican base. Suddenly it was the moderate Republicans who were feeling uncomfortable in their own party. The moderates had claimed to want a bigger tent, but the conservatives had brought in the wrong people wanting the wrong things. Some of the moderate Republicans eventually left the party and others learned to deal with the new neighbors. Anyway, the future of the Republican party belonged to the conservative Ronald Reagans and not the liberal Republican John Lindsays.
Today’s Tea Party insurgents face a challenge similar to that of the insurgent conservatives of the 1960s. The core of the Tea Party is made up of that fraction of the electorate that identifies itself as authentically conservative. This Tea Partiers consume and get much of their vocabulary from right-leaning media. The problem is that most Americans do not consume this media. Reaching Americans who do not consume right-leaning media is the Tea Party’s next challenge. That means finding the common ground between tea partiers and populations of persuadable voters outside the Republican base, and then investing time and effort in communicating with them. That is what Reagan and the insurgent conservatives of the 1960s and 1970s did.
The moderate Republicans of the early 1960s liked to tell conservatives that the Republican Right was out of touch with rapidly changing modern America and had to let the party’s moderates steer the party. That is basically what the party establishment is telling insurgent conservatives today. America is changing and conservatives haven’t (and can’t) figure it out. Leave the thinking to K Street and the Barbour machine. The conservatives of the 1960s proved that they were the ones who better understood the country and its people. If today’s insurgent conservatives are really mad at the Barbours, the challenge is to listen to Americans outside the conservative base and to convince those Americans that conservatives have the answers to today’s problems. That would be the best revenge.