This May Be the End of Tea Party Solidarity


Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann are savaging Newt Gingrich. Will their supporters still back him if he wins the nomination?

When I predicted that Newt Gingrich's rise would be a very bad thing for the Tea Party I was partly imagining an ad like the one above, which runs through the serial hypocrisies of the former House Speaker, and accurately portrays him as a poster-boy for cashing in on his political connections. It was produced by Ron Paul's campaign. After Paul's recent ads and his comments about Gingrich in the last GOP debate, it's easy to imagine a lot of Ron Paul voters staying home if Gingrich becomes the nominee -- they've now got cause to object to Gingrich's elevation for even more reasons than they object to the candidacy of Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor departs from Paulite orthodoxy on numerous policies, but the objections end there: he's never enriched himself by influence-pedaling for an entity like Freddie Mac.

Even more problematic for Tea Party solidarity are the attacks by Michele Bachmann, who has taken to referring to the GOP frontrunners as "Newt Romney." For most of the Republican race, Bachmann could compete as one of several alternatives to Mitt Romney, and Tea Party voters could either support Bachmann or Herman Cain or Rick Perry while basically liking all of them. It'll be much more difficult for Bachmann supporters to vote Gingrich after being told by the woman they trust, and whose candidacy they back, that he's no different from the dread Romney.

What Paul and Bachmann have in common is that they're uncompromising -- in different ways, to be sure, but both can attack Gingrich and do damage in a way that Romney can't because everyone knows that on core issues like size of government they are significantly more consistent and reliable. Gingrich can claim that he is electable in a way they aren't (I don't know if that is true, but a lot of people think so). It is nevertheless going to be controversial, among Tea Partiers, to rally around a less conservative candidate because he is more electable. And once electability is deciding the day, Romney is suddenly competing for the Tea Party vote.

It's always unclear what a campaign will be like three weeks out, but it looks as though we're in for a long period of Tea Party affiliated candidates running harsh ads against other Tea Party affiliated candidates. How long can that keep up before Tea Party affiliated voters join the GOP infighting?

It's one thing for Republicans to fight over whether the electable centrist or the reliable conservative should get the nomination, and quite another to fight about who is actually reliably conservative. The latter is sure to bring out heretic hunting and charges of hypocrisy. It's also likely to force certain candidates into fighting over who is in fact most uncompromising. If Gingrich or Romney wins the nomination, expect to see extreme statements they make during this period in the race featured in President Obama's attack advertisements. My hunch is that we'll look back on Gingrich's rise as the worst thing to happen to the right in Election 2012.

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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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