Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s formation of the congressional Tea Party caucus portends the Republican Party both a challenge and a confrontation. It is a battle for the soul of the GOP, suggesting a new definition of the party in light of its 2006-8 loses. Yet this remaking of the party is only the latest effort by the Republicans to define themselves, asking what in fact is orthodox Republicanism?
If the GOP takes over the House, the Tea bloc could hold the balance of power. If the Democrats retain control, the Tea caucus might force the Republican leadership into an ever more uncompromising ideological corner. But in either case, the formation of the caucus is the maturing of the Tea Party as it travels from a grassroots movement to an institutional force within the Republican Party. The real question though is whether the Tea caucus rebrands the GOP or the later coops the former.
This is not the first time the Republican Party has sought to remake itself. Think of the GOP at its inception as the party of Lincoln, committed to emancipation, civil rights, and economic freedom. Fast forward to Harding, Hoover, and Landon, the party of small government, business, and opposition to the New Deal. Then jump again to the 1950s and 60s. At the time I grew up in New York, Eisenhower was president building the interstate highway system, signing a major civil rights bill, and denouncing the military-industrial complex, while Governor Rockefeller, Senator Javits, and Democrat Senator Bobby Kennedy battled amongst themselves for the crown of who was more liberal.
The contemporary battle for the Republican orthodoxy begins in 1964 when Barry Goldwater challenged the Rockefeller wing of the GOP for dominance. Goldwater’s “Extremism in defense of liberty” speech was a repudiation of the accommodation with the New Deal that Eisenhower, Javits, and the Rockefeller wing had reached. Goldwater may have lost the election but he propelled the GOP in a direction that first triumphed with Reagan’s victory in 1980 and his inaugural speech declaration that government is the problem, not the solution.
The Reagan coalition blended together often contradictory movements of economic liberty and social conservatism. The former requires a minimalist state protecting individual choice, the later requires an activist one second-guessing freedom. While ideological, it was still willing to compromise within its party and with Democrats, producing notable and important legislation such as the 1986 tax reform and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. From 1980 to 2008 the Reagan brand is what defined the party. But beginning with the presidency of George Bush in 2001, and clearly by its end the Reagan brand had worn thin and when McCain ran and lost in 2008 it was clear that Reaganism was dead. Obama’s victory, along with Democratic gains in 06-08, signaled that change. For whatever it meant, it was preferred to Reaganism.
But the seeds of Reagan’s demise in McCain’s 2008 loss produced the heir of a new Republicanism in Sarah Palin. Palinism still seeks to balance the social conservatism and economic liberty of Reaganism, but it takes seriously the Goldwater extremism speech in its hyperactive purism and refusal to compromise. Palinism takes aim at the New Deal, combining it with nativism and constitutionalism that came to a head in the formation of the Tea Party and its mantra “I want my country back.”
The Palin makeover of the GOP combines Goldwaterism and Reaganism with a cult of personality, a multi-media advertising campaign, and a dose of Ayn Rand libertarianism. Palin, Fox news, conservative talk radio, and blogs have all produced less a coherent ideology or world view than it has yielded an attitude and brand. It is brand built on populist anger, anti-government feelings, opposition to immigration, gays, abortion, Democrats, and anything else that inspires fear. Partaking of that brand is Michelle Bachmann, and now the congressional Tea Party caucus.
While ideologically incoherent, Palinism has a deeper totalitarian aspect to it. Language describing some GOP members as RINOS (Republican in Name Only), talk of a 2009 conservative litmus test, and complaints that even Senators Bob Bennett and John McCain are not pure enough speak to a new orthodoxy.
So what is orthodox Republicanism now? It may be no more than a marketing brand or technique attempting to repackage a collection of contradictory ideas, some that have been part of the Republican Party for some time, others that are new. Palinism’s rebranding of the GOP offers little new, except for a multi-media cult of personality campaign that draws upon the anger and fear of many that their way of life is threatened and that someone else is to blame for it. If only government, gays, immigrants, abortionists, Democrats, and RINOS did not exist, we could take back our country and prosper again. This is orthodox Republicanism.