No one has vested more hope in the tea-party movement than the Democrats. For all the scorn and abuse they've heaped on the tea-partiers, they've counted on them for salvation.
The tea-partiers would push the GOP out of the mainstream. They would tar the party with their bumptious extremism. They would stoke a Republican civil war. The tea-partiers would, in short, redeem the Obama administration's political fortunes no matter what.
This was the oft-repeated theory, shot through with a perverse hopefulness and woeful misunderstanding. One wonders if Democrats can overcome their contempt for the tea-partiers whom they call "tea baggers," in honor of an exotic sexual practice long enough to notice that the devoutly wished-for GOP internal blood bath isn't materializing?
The National Tea Party Convention met in Nashville last weekend in the afterglow of Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. The GOP candidates in these states mobilized the conservative grass roots, including tea-party activists, while appealing to the center in purplish or deep-blue states. According to the cartoonish version of proto-Nazi, racist tea-party fanatics, this should have been an impossible stretch.
In her convention keynote address, Sarah Palin said that "in many ways Scott Brown represents what this beautiful movement is all about." She spoke about the new Massachusetts senator, who is pro-choice, shrugs at gay marriage and amassed a record in the state Senate that makes him look like Noam Chomsky compared with most of the convention attendees. He is lionized nonetheless.
Tea-partiers aren't so foolish to think that they can "take back the country" without attending to the minor detail of winning elections. "The rallies were good for last year," said Judson Phillips, who organized the Nashville convention. "This year we have to change things. We have got to win."
If the tea-partiers were to split from the GOP, or be spurned by it, that would indeed spell disaster for Republicans. It's an unlikely prospect, though. In a survey for the National Review Institute, pollster John McLaughlin found that tea-party activists and their sympathizers self-identify as Republicans, and 68 percent of them voted for John McCain. They are pro-life, pro-tax cuts and pro-defense in other words, mainstream conservatives who are particularly engaged by the debt-fueled growth of government.
Palin's rapturously received speech in Nashville could have been delivered almost line for line at a Republican Convention. She skipped the social issues, but otherwise rehearsed unalloyed conservative orthodoxy on national-security and fiscal issues. This is not the stuff of ideological fissure or self-immolation.
Any activist-driven movement will inevitably have rough edges. The Nashville convention itself was beset by feuding among tea-party groups and allegations of profiteering for its extravagant $550 admission price. It gave a platform to ranters Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman, and Joe Farah, editor of a right-wing Web site, both of whom predictably delivered cringe-inducing screeds.
But such embarrassments are a trifle compared with the enthusiasm of the tea-partiers, and their populist-tinged purifying impulse. They want to reconnect the GOP to the people, to its principles and to an ideal of public service that got obscured in the decadent latter days of its congressional majority.
Scott Brown and Sarah Palin are such heroes to the movement because they represent a relatively unpolished, plain-spoken conservatism untainted by association with the Republican compromises and failures in Washington during the Bush years. As Brown proved, with the backlash against President Barack Obama's big-government grandiosity building, this sensibility appeals to the middle as well as the tea-partiers.
This gives the tea-party movement its potency. Consider the alternative: Would it better for Republicans if a segment of their political base weren't so energized? If it weren't spontaneously organizing rallies and protests? If it weren't promoting anti-establishment candidates in this, the year of roiling discontent with an out-of-touch Washington?
The Democrats don't get it. If they understood their true interests, they wouldn't place their hopes in the tea-partiers; they'd wish they never existed.