In the aftermath of 2012, many conservatives have been afflicted with an identity crisis. Having seen the Reagan coalition fail to elect a man who would have won in a landslide with similar proportions of the population 30 years ago, and having seen Democratic constituencies turn out in numbers that defied expectations set by previous elections, it is understandable that the conservative movement and its sometime political vehicle, the Republican party, should find themselves bewildered about the future of the movement.
Naturally enough, as in any debate, different people have different ideas, and more than a little mutual recrimination was probably inevitable in this debate. However, now the first full-blown fight between previous allies has finally erupted. On the one side sit pragmatic conservatives looking to broaden the party's base, though perhaps at the expense of a few policy positions, and playing defense more than offense. On the other side sit principled conservatives looking to preserve the party's identity by jealously guarding policy positions, and viewing the act of playing defense itself as an admission of defeat.
Over at RedState, one of the former has just fired a shot across the bow of the latter:
The Tea Party brand has been effectively destroyed. After three years of demonizing the Tea Party as ‘racist,’ ‘extremist,’ and ‘radical,’ the brand has become a cancer.
It is now a drag on the candidates it supports, with the Left (and GOP establishment types like Karl Rove) gleefully labeling conservative candidates as “outside the mainstream.”
In the meantime, while the Tea Party had once enjoyed 24% popularity, according to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 8% of Americans now identify themselves as members of the Tea Party.
While that is the lowest it has been in the three years, there is some positive news in that poll: Thirty percent of the poll’s participants do hold favorable views of the Tea Party. That is something to build on.
However, insofar as it has been branded and is now associated with negativism, the brand itself must change in order to build and grow again.
Obviously, contrary opinions exist. David Brody of CBN devoted a recent Brody File to the question, and interviewed multiple Tea Party members who suggested that reports of their death are exaggerated.
Much like Mark Twain, the Tea Party said reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. While polls show Tea Party identification dropping from 24 percent in 2010 to just 8 percent today, there have been key wins.
Newly minted Sens. Ted Cruz and Deb Fischer joined a growing constitutional conservative group made up of Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Tim Scott, and Rand Paul.
In the House, more than 50 Tea Party members make up a strong voting bloc. Ultimately, Tea Party leaders say the key to a sustainable national movement is electing House and Senate candidates who are ready for prime time.
Julie Turner, president of the Texas Patriots, said the way to keep the movement on track is by grooming candidates on the local level and growing a bench of all-stars.
"We require our candidates for endorsement to have a path to victory in their campaign," Turner told CBN News.
Nevertheless, if calling the Tea Party label a "cancer" at one of the most well-read conservative blogs isn't a sign of warning for those who identify with the label, then it is almost certainly the case that another recent story about Republican mega-strategist Karl Rove will cause some discomfort. The New York Times reports:
The biggest donors in the Republican Party are financing a new group to recruit seasoned candidates and protect Senate incumbents from challenges by far-right conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts who Republican leaders worry could complicate the party’s efforts to win control of the Senate.
The group, the Conservative Victory Project, is intended to counter other organizations that have helped defeat establishment Republican candidates over the last two election cycles. It is the most robust attempt yet by Republicans to impose a new sense of discipline on the party, particularly in primary races.
“There is a broad concern about having blown a significant number of races because the wrong candidates were selected,” said Steven J. Law, the president of American Crossroads, the “super PAC” creating the new project. “We don’t view ourselves as being in the incumbent protection business, but we want to pick the most conservative candidate who can win.”[...]
The Conservative Victory Project, which is backed by Karl Rove and his allies who built American Crossroads into the largest Republican super PAC of the 2012 election cycle, will start by intensely vetting prospective contenders for Congressional races to try to weed out candidates who are seen as too flawed to win general elections.
The project is being waged with last year’s Senate contests in mind, particularly the one in Missouri, where Representative Todd Akin’s comment that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy rippled through races across the country. In Indiana, the Republican candidate, Richard E. Mourdock, lost a race after he said that when a woman became pregnant during a rape it was “something God intended.”
Rove himself has hastily backtracked from this description of his group's mission, protesting that his fight is not actually with the Tea Party.
Unfortunately for him, not everyone's convinced of the purity of his motives. However, one or two conservative commentators have accepted Rove's word, albeit for different, and more cynical reasons than he suggests. Allahpundit at Hot Air provides one such explanation:
But then, we’re assuming that Rove’s main goal, and American Crossroads’s goal more broadly, is to boost establishment candidates. Is it? Or is this reorientation towards electability more about protecting their viability with rich contributors after a disastrous election year?[...]
Some donors will walk away, but not all. And by backing the most “electable” candidate in every primary, CPV now has a prefab defense to future losses: They can’t be accused of mismanaging their contributors’ money because they’re betting on the horse with the best odds of winning in each race. It’s like a hedge fund switching to a more risk-averse investment strategy after major losses, even though a lot of Republicans who went bust last year were establishment favorites who weren’t so risky on paper. “Electability” is really just Crossroads’s way of reassuring its funders that next time will be different — with the punchline being that they’ll likely be pressured into backing a few tea-party longshots anyway, just to keep grassroots conservatives from making the CPV endorsement a badge of contempt in the movement that candidates grow reluctant to embrace.
Poll numbers are not pleasant reading for those looking to defend the Tea Party, however. People who openly identify as Tea Party members have declined as a percentage of the population from 24 percent to 8 percent. Only 30 percent of Americans hold a favorable view of the Tea Party, a number only slightly higher than former President George W. Bush's approval rating when he left office.
However, just because the label "Tea Party" might be unpopular, that's no reason for principled conservatives (or libertarians, for that matter) to despair. In late 2011, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, young people gave the term "libertarian" high marks by a 22 point margin, even higher than the margin by which Tea Partiers liked the term. Could this label at last be coming into its own? One can only guess.