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Can They Prevail?
so what are the long-term plans of the Tea Party rebellion? Attend a rally for Tea Party Senate candidates like Kentucky's Rand Paul, Nevada's Sharron Angle or Alaska's Joe Miller and you might be surprised at just how much mainstream frustration they are channeling. At root, the Tea Party is the amen corner for those deeply worried about the size of the bailouts, the stimulus and the expansion of government-supported health care. Many see a way of life for themselves and their children slipping away while the nation's leaders do nothing but make the problems worse. Many of the candidates also go much further, talking about repealing President Obama's health care reform bill, eliminating the departments of Education and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency and devolving those powers to the states. Candidates like Angle have said it is "hard to justify" Social Security and called for phasing out Medicare.
Congress has seen a sudden influx of no-compromise conservatives before. In 1994, 73 Republicans stormed into the House, many of them preaching anti-government themes that sound similar to those of today's Tea Partyers. The Republicans of that year even proclaimed their victory a revolution that promised to change how Washington worked. It didn't pan out that way. Even in the newly Republican-controlled Congress, votes on congressional term limits and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution came up short. And when House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, forced a federal-government shutdown in an effort to make President Bill Clinton accept their budget cuts, they badly lost the battle for public opinion. Indeed, the class of 1994 may have saved Clinton's foundering presidency by allowing him to portray himself as a defender of the mainstream against their "radical" agenda.
As a result, many of the GOP newcomers adjusted their ambitions to the reality of the Capitol. "I don't think we'll have the same chutzpah that we had last time," Representative Rick White of Washington told PBS after the 1996 elections. "We're going to be a little bit more measured, a little bit more cautious, perhaps." And so they were, working with Clinton on a deal to balance the budget.
It's far too early to know if this new breed of conservative reformer will follow a different course. But the movement will certainly play a major role in the Republican race for the 2012 presidential nomination, which will effectively begin Nov. 3, 2010. "Many of these primary results serve as a reminder that crystallizing our party's message to voters on reforming the status quo in Washington and reining in spending is vital in the current political environment," said Kevin Madden, a top adviser to Mitt Romney. Romney has run afoul of some Tea Party activists for backing health care reform in Massachusetts, and he immediately endorsed O'Donnell after her victory.
The Republican leadership seems to be getting the message. On the night of O'Donnell's win, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a terse, one-line statement from a staff employee congratulating O'Donnell for her nomination "after a hard-fought primary campaign." At the same time, Republican operatives across Washington grieved to one another and reporters over O'Donnell's victory, which put at risk a seat previously considered safe for Republicans this year.
But by daybreak it was clear that such a reaction was unsustainable. By faint-praising O'Donnell, party leaders were only playing into the hands of the populist revolt against the party and its leaders, just as Rove had done the night before. In the current environment, only outsiders have credibility. So Senator John Cornyn, the head of the committee that had once been working for O'Donnell's opponent, changed course. "Let there be no mistake: the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and I personally as the committee's chairman, strongly stand by all of our Republican nominees," Cornyn said. And then he promptly shovelled O'Donnell $42,000 for her campaign. More is sure to come.
In other words, O'Donnell may have been right after all on election night. "We the people" are making their voices heard.