What the Tea Party Insurgency Can Learn From the Netroots Insurgency

In 2006, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rahm Emanuel, conceived a strategy to help his party pick up House seats in culturally conservative congressional districts. He found candidates like Heath Shuler, the former Washington Redskins quarterback, to fit comfortably in North Carolina's 11th congressional district. Rahm did not insist that his candidates adopt every point of the Democratic National Committee's platform. He promised to help them, only if they demonstrated that they could carry their own weight. At the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the brain trust latched on to candidates like James Webb from Virginia, a brilliant, temperamental former Republican Secretary of the Navy, and Jon Tester from Montana, an actual organic farmer.  The more it became clear that Democrats would have a natural enthusiasm advantage -- this was, after all, the punish-Bush-for-Iraq cycle -- the more of these candidates become viable.  To be sure, the Democratic base pushed back against the intrusion of the parties in several cases, winning primaries. (The Netroots did not appreciate Emanuel's hand-picked candidate for Henry Hyde's old seat in Illinois, and never really forgot his casual dismissal of their preferred choice.)  In the end, though, the tension was healthy, keeping the establishment candidates in check, and the Democratic rank and file did not seem to even remember the primary battles by the time the election rolled around.  

The Republican Party faces a similar opportunity this year. There are about a dozen (if not 18 or 20) House districts that are constitutionally Republican and would swing back to the GOP from Democrats merely if momentum had shifted slightly.  For the most part, the NRCC recruited top flight candidates for these seats, and even though the Democrats have more money, the Republican challengers have enough money to win most of them back. The Tea Party movement has been very successful in finding and running candidates for Senate because of the political economy of scale. But the gap between the threshold level of acceptability between the party and its activist base is wider than the gap between Democrats and the Netroots ever was.  Even as Harry Reid has had to herd cats at times, as many headaches as Democrats have developed from having to deal with an internal affairs force within the party, it will pale in comparison to what Republicans will face in power if they try to adhere to their current norms. But as Emanuel might admit, even with the affection he has for his class 's Democrats, they've made governing a lot harder for the Democrats, pressuring the party's center from the right.  The Democratic struggle -- the internal affairs cops of the left and the cautious conservatives of the right -- is part of the reason why it seems as if the party has no clear agenda.  

What lessons will the Republican Party take from the Democrats?  They DON'T have -- or won't have -- a cadre of moderate House Republicans to pressure them from the center. The gravitation force will pull the party to the right.  Every incentive structure will shift to favor a party that resists anything that the Democrats or the White House propose--even more so than now.

And Republicans in power now will resist that, because they know that demography is not in their favor, and that midterms can skew the cast of an electorate temporarily.  There's no question that the GOP will have to integrate the Tea Party into its processes, procedures and culture. That means that they will have to be very sensitive to perception ... to, say, the presidential primary rules,  making sure that the party appears to have little power to set limits and select delegates.  It means that the GOP will need to keep its distance from Washington lobbyists, assuming that the Tea Partiers will genuinely do the sort of internal policing that the Netroots currently do for Democrats. It means that the GOP will need a significant, credible Tea Party figure in its leadership ranks at a high level immediately after the election.  It also means that the party will need to find a way to demonstrate to regular Americans, 80 percent of whom either dislike or have no opinion of the Tea Party, that they are merely a party that ventilates rage, but a party that can govern and get things passed even in an environment where senators are going to be objecting to unanimous consent votes much more regularly.