The GOP Establishment Has Done Far More Damage Than the Tea Party

It's a mistake to blame powerless insurgents, however unhinged, for the dismal record of the Republican Party.

william f buckley full reuters.jpg
William F. Buckley with President George W. Bush (Reuters)

What the right needs now is another William F. Buckley, says former Republican National Committee staffer David Welch. "In the 1960s, Buckley, largely through his position at the helm of National Review, displayed political courage and sanity by taking on the John Birch Society, an influential anti-Communist group whose members saw conspiracies everywhere they looked," he writes. "Fast forward half a century. The modern-day Birchers are the Tea Party. By loudly espousing extreme rhetoric, yet holding untenable beliefs, they have run virtually unchallenged by the Republican leadership, aided by irresponsible radio talk-show hosts and right-wing pundits. While the Tea Party grew, respected moderate voices in the party were further pushed toward extinction."

This is mistaken analysis.

As a critic of Tea Party excesses and right-wing talk radio, I'm often approached with this sort of suggestion as if I'll be sympathetic to it. But ready as I am to attack "untenable beliefs" wherever they may be found, the notion that the Tea Party is responsible for the right's woes is perilously wrongheaded, for it ignores the ruinous role the GOP establishment has played in recent years.

The GOP establishment has failed conservatives and the country alike.

It made George W. Bush's nomination a fait accompli in the run-up to the 2000 primaries. Members of the establishment presided over the Bush Administration's ruinous foreign policy. In Congress, it was establishment Republicans who pushed the Iraq War, gave us the K Street Project, and signed off on a fiscal course that combined two costly wars, the budget-busting Medicare Part D, and tax cuts paid for with borrowed money. The Tea Party arose in part as a response to some of those failures, along with the giveaway of taxpayer money to many of the people most culpable for causing the financial crisis. Among the Tea Party's many flaws is the fact that many of its members are too slavishly loyal in their partisan attachments, which is why they've done so little to effect actual change.

That isn't to excuse the idiocy found daily on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh's radio show, and the WorldNetDaily constellation of right-wing websites, all of which do tremendous damage to the conservative movement. Nor is it to excuse the Tea Party's flaws or its laughable field of presidential candidates in the 2012 cycle. It's just to say that the failures of the conservative movement and the grassroots right are consequential because it renders them unable to reform a failed establishment which, by virtue of wielding power, has itself been the cause of many woes.

Buckley may have dissed the Birchers. That doesn't make it any less strange to invoke him in a column lamenting the fact that respected moderates in the GOP are being "pushed toward extinction." His achievement was to overthrow an establishment, not to protect one from ideological insurgents, and were he resurrected today I can't imagine he'd revel in rallying around Karl Rove, one of the people who Welch seems to think the GOP would do well to keep around. Nor would I want him too.

There's an unhealthy habit in American politics to lay blame on perceived or actual "extremists" -- libertarians and Randians are attacked today in sort of the same way anti-war protesters and "the angry left" were attacked during the Bush Administration -- even though they've literally never wielded power. Meanwhile, moderates and centrists brought us the policies responsible for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the financial crisis, every giveaway to lobbyists ever passed, and most recently a multi-country spree of extrajudicial assassinations carried out in secret with hundreds of civilian casualties. It's lucky for the centrists and moderates that they have oh-so-frightening "extremists" to distract us from their sometimes criminal misgovernance.

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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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