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The Republican Party’s Goldwater moment

Eric Cantor’s defeat could be momentous for the tea party. That’s bad for the rest of the party

June 18, 2014 12:30AM ET

The final months of the 2014 primary season are going to be scrutinized like an encrypted National Security Agency tweet for hints of where the Republican Party is headed. If the tea party can build on its historic defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, pulling off a few more improbable victories in the year’s remaining contests, the populist, anti-establishment movement may be well on its way to electrifying the 2016 primary electorate and perhaps even installing its own presidential nominee.

Looking at the choices ahead, the schism in the GOP could not be starker. Moderate establishment types are suddenly pining for Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee and former Massachusetts governor whose signature health program was the model for “Obamacare.” MSNBC host and former GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough has even called for a draft Romney movement. “This is the only person that can fill the stage,” he reportedly said at a donor summit convened by Romney in Park City, Utah.

Tea party politicians and activists, meanwhile, are yearning for something completely different. As Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul put it at the Iowa state GOP convention, “There are people who say we need to be more moderate. I couldn’t disagree more.”

But if the tea party wing of the GOP manages to nominate an ultraconservative along the lines of a Barry Goldwater, it will smack up against the reality that Americans don’t want the policies or tactics it is selling. 

Unpopular populists

While the Cantor defeat has triggered excitement (and hopes of a domino effect) in the populist right wing, most polls show that fewer than 3 in 10 Americans support or identify with the tea party movement.

In Congress and on the 2014 campaign trail, tea party politicians are promoting ideas that are divisive or plain unpopular, including a hard line against taxes and immigration reform, outrage over alleged violations of constitutional rights (from gun control to NSA spying), spending so diminished that it would penalize constituents and a willingness to risk government shutdowns and debt default in futile fights to repeal “Obamacare” and avoid raising the debt limit.

Signs for the movement are thus mixed. Yes, tea party populist and economics professor David Brat pulled off a shocking, underfunded upset in Cantor’s suburban Richmond, Virginia, district. On the other hand, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California — less conservative than Cantor by many measures — is the favorite to succeed Cantor as majority leader in a secret-ballot vote Thursday. At one point he was unopposed, leading RedState.com editor Erick Erickson to write, in a post headlined “The stupid party,” “House Republicans looked on the biggest electoral surprise of the year and are giving it the middle finger.” Then Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador jumped into the race late as a tea party torchbearer, complete with a grass-roots campaign organized by the Washington-based conservative lobbying group FreedomWorks. Referring to the Cantor rout, Labrador said, “The message from Tuesday is clear — Americans are looking for a change in the status quo.” 

If Cantor’s ouster leads to a 2016 nominee who is tea-party-anointed, the movement will be put to the ultimate test — and will be all but certain to fail.

The message spelled out by Cantor’s defeat, however, seemed awfully specific to his district. Cantor was ambitious, Washington-oriented and out of touch with his constituents. They were the ones who wanted a change. As for the larger picture, even Republicans are divided over the type of change the tea party would bring. As I wrote at the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog, the overall win-loss record for tea party primary candidates this year is weak. Establishment candidates, on the other hand, have in most cases been strong enough and conservative enough to prevail, some with support from the Chamber of Commerce and other groups. In lower-profile House primaries without incumbents, only 16 tea party candidates have won so far, while 81 have lost. 

Consequences of the edge

Still, it’s possible that Brat’s jolting victory could change the trend. Two significant tests will come June 24 in close Senate nomination races that pit Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran against tea party hero Chris McDaniel and Oklahoma Rep. Jim Lankford against tea-party-anointed T.W. Shannon. There will also be opportunities for candidates in lower-profile races who may now attract more money and endorsements from tea party groups and media buzz. If a string of unexpected tea party victories ensues, it will be hard for Republican presidential candidates to ignore. The natural beneficiaries would be prospects already identified with the tea party, such as Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. The pressure on others will be to swing in their direction or skip the race.

For all those reasons and more, it’s not irrational for the tea party wing to feel that its views are popular and that it is on the verge of liftoff. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, ideological polarization is increasing. Those with “consistent conservative” positions account for only 9 percent of the electorate, but they are most likely to function in self-reinforcing echo chambers: 50 percent said it’s important for them to live near people on their political wavelength, and 63 percent said their close friends share their political views (compared with 35 percent and 49 percent, respectively, for “consistent liberal” respondents). In a key finding that more broadly underscores the GOP’s intensity and potential to mobilize, Republicans overall are more hostile toward Democratic policies. More than a third — 36 percent — said Democratic policies threaten the nation, according to the Pew poll, compared with 27 percent of Democrats who said the same about GOP policies.

That intensity could very well shift in a presidential campaign, when proposals from Paul and other tea party candidates would be under a relentless spotlight. Many of them want to kill or gut federal agencies and end or dramatically shrink safety-net programs — in short, radically redefine the role of the federal government. This will doubtless appeal to uncompromising conservatives, but they are a tiny minority compared with the 39 percent in the Pew poll whose positions are mixed and another 40 percent who are mostly but not consistently liberal or conservative.

Historically, both parties have seen what happens to a nominee who is outside the mainstream or perceived that way. In 1964, Goldwater — who wanted to eliminate Social Security and other programs — won only six states and 52 of 538 electoral votes against Democratic incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Eight years later, anti-war Democrat George McGovern won only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., against beleaguered President Richard Nixon — a 520-to-17 Electoral College landslide. The GOP nominated the more moderate Nixon after Goldwater’s loss. After McGovern’s near shutout, Democrats moved to the middle with a Southern governor, Jimmy Carter, and again with Bill Clinton after Michael Dukakis won only 10 states in 1988.

Tea party politicians and activists have been claiming since 2009 that they are the change America needs and wants. If Cantor’s ouster leads to a 2016 nominee who is a tea party leader (or who has been pushed to embrace tea party views)­­, the movement will be put to the ultimate test — and will be all but certain to fail.

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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