The Agenda

Andrew Sullivan on Scott Brown and Tea-Partyism

Andrew writes:

I can see no alternative scenario but a huge – staggeringly huge – victory for the FNC/RNC machine tomorrow. They crafted a strategy of total oppositionism to anything Obama proposed a year ago. Remember they gave him zero votes on even the stimulus in his first weeks. They saw health insurance reform as Obama’s Waterloo, and, thanks in part to the dithering Democrats, they beat him on that hill. They have successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year. If they can do that already, against the massive evidence against them, they have the power to wield populism to destroy any attempt by government to address any actual problems.

This is a nihilist moment, built from a nihilist strategy in order to regain power … to do nothing but wage war against enemies at home and abroad.

I am far from convinced that Brown will win tomorrow. But I want to suggest that he represents not nihilism, as Andrew suggests, but rather a belief in competitive federalism. I believe, and I get the strong impression that Brown believes, that health reform is an issue that should be handled differently in different regions of the country. The Massachusetts reform model might prove to be a decent fit for Massachusetts — the jury is still out, and it’s a commonplace that the model is in desperate need to delivery-system reform. But perhaps Hawaii will want to experiment with a single-payer system and Texas will want to experiment with universal catastrophic coverage and Minnesota will choose something in between. 

I understand the frustration that Andrew feels with conservative elites, who can be at least as hypocritical and incompetent as liberal elites, and there’s a decent case that the Bush administration took steps that centralized power in Washington, D.C. to a truly dangerous degree. But as someone who has an enduring distrust of centralized bureaucracies, one-size-fits-all solutions, and the technocratic ideal, I think that Andrew should be more skeptical of the Democratic health reform effort. Moreover, these principles should go beyond left and right. Excessively centralized power, whether in the hands of the federal government or large private sector firms that actively shape the regulatory structure, should concern all of us. 

And I sense that at least some of the impetus behind Brown’s (still unproven) popularity comes from the view that we’ve gone too far in a centralized direction.

There are many, many ironies in the Brownthusiam, but the most notable is the fact that this suburban father with a rather blandly centrist voting record has become the target of apocalyptic rhetoric from both sides. Really, the question is whether or not he has decent judgment. His record suggests that he’s good at making fine distinctions and voting in a pragmatic, constituency-focused manner. I’d prefer a more cost-conscious legislator myself, but he certainly doesn’t come across as a nihilist bent on the destruction of government.

I’ll happily acknowledge, as I did in my Forbes.com column, that there are some aspects of the Brown campaign that are discouraging, including the fact that he doesn’t balance talk of tax cuts with serious talk of spending cuts — indeed, he is adamantly opposed to even very modest Medicare cuts. But does his record suggest that he’s capable of being an effective legislator? I think the answer is yes.

Moreover, as Ross suggests in a blog post, Brown could represent the revival of northeastern Republicanism. Daniel Larison, going further, suggests that this could represent a turn from evangelical identity politics — a tendency that Andrew has decried:

So Tea Party activists in the Northeast are backing a viable candidate in Massachusetts to seize the opportunity of competing for an open Senate seat. This should make clear that the nature of the Tea Party agenda is going to depend on the region where the activists are operating, and it should also emphasize how relatively unimportant social conservative issues are to the Tea Party agenda, whose focus is heavily fiscal and economic. The willingness to acknowledge regional political differences is an encouraging sign that these activists could combine their anti-establishment populists instincts with attention to local political conditions and grievances. That shows the flexibility needed to rebuild a national political coalition.

That is, the Tea Party movement, as David Brooks argued, is not a primal scream from an insane rump. Rather, it reflects a number of classical liberal ideals of fairly longstanding.  

The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.

Brooks acknowledges that he is “not a fan of this movement,” and he does tend to have more faith in our governing class. I increasingly have a more favorable view. 

Andrew thinks that the Tea Party movement has been unfair to the president, and he has a point. 

They have successfully channeled all the rage at the massive debt and recession the president inherited on Obama after just one year.

Where were the Tea Partiers during the Bush years? One assumes that many of them were conservative independents who abandoned President Bush in droves, and who helped put Jim Webb and Jon Tester and other populist Democrats over the top in 2006. But as for the Republican refusal to vote for the stimulus, I think the case against the actual federal stimulus package — as opposed to the theoretical virtues of a well-designed, sustainable stimulus package — was fairly strong, and it was made by left-of-center scholars like Jeffrey Sachs as well as many on the right, including scholars who favored some kind of fairly large stimulus like Greg Mankiw.

I understand that Andrew, like many friends I admire and respect, has a great deal of faith in the Obama administration, and he seems to believe that the Democratic health reform model represents the only good-faith compromise imaginable given the nihilistic role played by the Republicans. I very strongly disagree. Rather, I think that it is a misguided effort that will exceedingly difficult to undo. And a good number of voters across the country, not just in Massachusetts or for that matter the Deep South, are similarly convinced. We could be wrong. But I don’t think we’re insane.  

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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