Why Democrats have the tea party to thank for their win

The tea party had a huge impact on the election – but not the one it sought. It kept the Senate in Democratic hands by nominating far-right, losing candidates. It pushed Mitt Romney too far to the right. What Republicans need is their own Bill Clinton. Someone like New Jersey's Chris Christie.

Thomas P. CostelloAP
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shakes hands with Tom Preiser, police chief of Harvey Cedars, N.J., on Nov. 7, ahead of the Nor'easter that hit the state Wednesday. Op-ed contributor Jeremy D. Mayer writes: 'Look at America’s collective positive response to the picture of Republican Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, cooperating with Obama on storm relief' related to hurricane Sandy.

The tea party was born as an angry response to the person and policies of Barack Hussein Obama. Now that he has been reelected, what can the tea party learn from these very bitter leaves at the bottom of their cup?

First, that they have had a huge impact on the election – but not the one they sought. They have kept the Senate in Democratic hands by nominating far-right candidates in states where simple conservatives would have won. And they pushed Mitt Romney so far to the right that a badly damaged President Obama beat him handily in the swing states.

In 2010 and 2012, the tea party took over Senate primaries in Delaware, Indiana, Nevada, Missouri, and elsewhere, rejecting sure winners like Sen. Richard Lugar and nominating likely losers. That is the only reason Republicans do not control the Senate today. Harry Reid should have been bankrolling the tea party, because without it, he wouldn’t be the Senate majority leader.

These political revolutionaries tossed many crates of tea overboard, ending the careers of incumbents. It’s just that the majority of those tossed were Republicans.

And the exit polls are clear: Governor Romney didn’t lose because he wasn’t conservative enough. He lost because he couldn’t get enough moderates, independents, women, and Hispanics in states like Ohio, Nevada, Virginia, and New Hampshire. He should have been a natural for some of those voters, based on his background.

But he became a different Romney in the Republican primaries, because of tea party voters. This Romney was trying to “self-deport” Hispanics by the millions, pledged to defund Planned Parenthood, and promised a gigantic, unfunded tax cut that favored the wealthy.

The tea party was also the biggest force keeping Republicans from cooperating with Mr. Obama on any of his major initiatives. Congressional Republicans all knew that their career could easily end if they voted with Obama, even once. A tea party challenger in a primary was a far greater danger than a Democrat in the general election.

That cemented the image of the GOP as the party of “no.” Look at America’s collective positive response to the picture of Republican Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, cooperating with Obama on storm relief. The tea party didn’t let any national Republicans take popular, bipartisan steps.

The tea party, as a force in American politics, is largely finished now, barring another economic collapse. The millions of supporters of that movement are not going to vanish, though, nor will their very real issue of government spending. What the GOP needs is a unifying figure who can moderate the extremism of the tea party without squelching its fervor or its cause of lower deficits. In short, Republicans need a Bill Clinton.

The “comeback kid” took over a party that had just gotten badly beaten in three straight presidential elections. He came from the small moderate wing in his party, and somehow managed to convince the left-wing elements that they should unite behind him. Many did not trust him initially, but his political skills convinced them that he was their only hope if they wanted to return to power.

Who is that figure in the GOP today? We can learn a lot from where the tea party hurt the Republicans worst – social issues.

In Missouri and Indiana, it was ill-tuned remarks about women, rape, and abortion that turned likely victories into painful defeats for Republicans. But the tea party, at its core, isn’t a social-issues movement. Its supporters of small government and radical spending cuts, though, include many figures who hold hard-right social views. The unifying figure the party needs is a moderate on abortion who can speak the language of social conservatism fluently – and carry the spending-cuts torch.

Right now, that person seems to be Gov. Christie, who is pro-life but with exceptions for rape and incest. And just as Mr. Clinton came from the region where his party was weakest (the South), Christie comes from the Northeast, where the tea party is most ridiculed, and where the GOP has become almost irrelevant.

Parties often take a while to learn hard lessons. And many tea partiers are lamenting not that Romney was too conservative, but that he wasn’t conservative enough. If that mistaken interpretation of what went wrong in the 2012 election persists, it will be a big assist to whoever has the Democratic nomination in 2016.

Jeremy D. Mayer is an associate professor in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University where he also directs the masters program in public policy.

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