The Tea Party's Defining Choice

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Will the right-leaning movement elevate an effective small government reformer or a bombastic rhetorician in 2012?

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In a New York Times piece on the primary challenge that GOP Senator Richard Lugar faces, this passage struck me: "Mr. Lugar is trying to run on moderation in an immoderate time. He is betting that the Tea Party call of alarm and partisanship is drowning out a majority that prefers Republicans who specialize in reason and reaching across the aisle."

The tea party movement is defined in that sentence by the ferocity of its rhetoric rather than the substance of its small government agenda. Insofar as there are a lot of tea party voters who earnestly care about the budget deficit, the size of the federal bureaucracy, and the bailouts we've seen since the financial crisis, it is unfair to write as though the movement is driven solely by its embrace of immoderation. At the same time, the tea party has brought this characterization on itself by elevating leaders like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, who are celebrated for their combative style more than their governing chops or the policy positions they embrace.  

In the 2012 primaries, we're going to see what tea party voters and activists value most. Electability? Principled policy stances? Or heated words? The best version of the movement would elevate candidates who are principled, rather than prizing electability above all else. The worst version of the tea party would make electability and policy subservient to emotionally cathartic campaign rhetoric -- it's always a mistake when firing up the base is more an end than a means.

Why would anyone deem "talking the talk" more important than "walking the walk?" It's puzzling, to be sure, but a faction of the conservative movement is doing just that in the most explicit terms. Here is Rush Limbaugh, as influential a man as there is on the right, pontificating on Mitch Daniels, the staunchly conservative yet polite and rhetorically moderate Indiana governor:

He did defund Planned Parenthood in Indiana.  He's also signed some pretty good education reform bills... So why does he then say, after successfully tackling Planned Parenthood as a governor, why does he say, by the way, we shouldn't be talking about social issues, we need a truce on the social issues.  Why can't he be proud of what he's done, use it on his resumes, and say, "Here's how you do this." ...If he's willing to walk the walk as you say, why not talk the talk? Because he's gonna have to talk the talk to win.
...The Republican establishment does not like the Tea Party and they don't like it because it's conservative... So when I hear people saying things to curry favor with that group, my antennae go up a little bit. We're supposed to trust, "Don't worry, he's really X."  Well, he's gonna have to talk this talk to get there to walk the walk. The talk has to be there first... I find it utterly fascinating to talk to passionate supporters of candidates and hear how their obvious weaknesses don't really exist. "Well, that's just out of context. Oh, you'll have to wait! He's gonna walk a bigger walk than he's gonna talk the talk." ...Now, Mitch Daniels said that we shouldn't see -- he said at CPAC, we should not consider our political opponents as our enemies.

Well, tell that to Barack Obama.

So Daniels governs as a conservative, passing policy that Limbaugh considers praiseworthy. But he is insufficiently triumphalist about it, and in the talk radio host's mind, "talk" must precede "walk." It's as clear an example as you'll find of a mindset that Ross Douthat aptly diagnosed:

The underlying theory behind the talk radio critique of Daniels is basically that you can't trust a man who disarms liberals with his seeming reasonability, and what you need instead is somebody who takes the fight to the left at every opportunity. This is an excellent description of the qualities required ... to be a good talk radio host. But when applied to the presidential scene, it amounts to a kind of politics of schadenfreude, in which actual conservative accomplishments count for nothing, the ability to woo undecided voters is downgraded or dismissed, and all that matters is how much a prospective candidate irritates liberals.

Most Republicans are smart enough to decline this approach to politics, else Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann would be leading in the 2012 polls. Less clear is the influence the tea party will have on the race. Its members have a choice. And those who earnestly believe in their professed agenda should choose to prize "walking the walk" over "talking the talk." Flamethrowers tend to get burned.     


Image credit: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters



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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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