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Jon Chait has a good post today on a subject that's been in the back of my mind too: what lessons are Republicans taking from the Tea Party takeover of the GOP? As he points out, so far it's been a disaster. Pat Toomey's primary challenge of Arlen Specter brought us healthcare reform, Sharron Angle's victory in Nevada is likely to let Harry Reid keep his seat, and Tea Party darlings Rand Paul (in Kentucky) and Marco Rubio (in Florida) have turned safe seats into nailbiters. And of course there was Doug Hoffman's insurgency last year in New York's 23rd district, which accomplished nothing except to split the conservative vote and hand the seat to a Democrat for the first time since the Civil War:
This is four Senate seats put at serious risk by running right-wing primary challenges, plus one enormous liberal domestic policy accomplishment....I have seen no recriminations whatsoever in hindsight. And yet it seems perfectly clear that the effect of these challenges has been a disaster from the conservative perspective.
....Obviously the conservative movement is intoxicated with hubris right now. Part of this hubris is their belief that the American people are truly and deeply on their side and that the last two elections were either a fluke or the product of a GOP that was too centrist. It's a tactical radicalism, a belief that ideological purity carries no electoral cost whatsoever.
The usual way this stuff works is that a party that overreaches gets pummeled at the polls and then grudgingly moves to the center in order to win back votes. Think Republicans after Goldwater, Democrats after Reagan, and Britain's Labor Party after Thatcher. The main question is, how long does it take?
Republicans have now gotten pummeled for two elections in a row. That's not enough. Three in a row might do it, but unfortunately for the GOP, they're going to win big this year no matter what. Even if Republicans do worse than expected — say, a 20-seat pickup in the House and three or four in the Senate — that's plenty big enough for them to think of it as a resounding public endorsement. In fact, it might be the worst of all possible worlds for them: big enough to keep everyone motivated, but small enough to keep them in the minority, where they can continue to spout the most extreme Tea Party rhetoric with no need to back it up. It's the ideal combination to keep them deluded into thinking that if they just follow the one true path a little more diligently, victory will be theirs.
I haven't been able to figure out how this ends. I guess I'll just have to wait and see like everyone else. One scenario is that they pick up seats but stay in the minority for next decade or so, and that's how long it takes for them to come to their senses. Another is that they win a congressional majority and then — what? It's obvious they have no intention of taking a meat axe to spending, and equally obvious that they know how unpopular this would be no matter what the tea partiers say. Check out Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) on Meet the Press today for comically convincing evidence of this. But what happens then? Is there any point at which the tea partiers will finally figure out that Republicans are willing to talk endlessly about slashing the federal government but are never willing to actually do it?
Or is John Quiggin right? Would Republicans, against all odds, actually try to live up to their rhetoric and end up shutting down the government, as Newt Gingrich did in 1995? And if so, what happens then? Sarah Palin in 2012? Followed by a Goldwater-style election debacle? It's hard to think of any way in which this ends up well for either the Republican Party or for the country.