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