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Be Careful What You Wish For: Tea Party Edition

There is a claim going around progressive and mainstream media circles that “Tea Party” victories in Republican primaries show that the GOP isn’t as lockstep as believed. But the Tea Party rebellion isn’t against the Republican platform — as we will see, the current co-opted iteration of Tea Party candidates have to back the GOP platform in order to qualify for funding — but against the belief of Republican Party leaders that it’s best for the GOP base to not show its true colors lest they lose general elections.

Here’s the deal: Once upon a time, there really was a “tea party movement” that was an independent grass-roots entity; the first of the original tea party groups in this movement were started in 2006, well before Rick Santelli made his infamous rant on CNBC. (In fact, Santelli’s rant was not the start of the movement, but the trigger signal for its co-opting to commence.) The Republicans wanted to coopt the original libertarian tea party movement, removing the libertarian portions thereof and replacing them with neocon and social-conservative influences. Otherwise, it could have become an organized national party capable of doing to the Republicans what the Republicans regularly do to the Dems, which is to back a spoiler party just strong enough to peel enough votes off of the Democrats to hurt them electorally.

But in order to effect the co-opting, they had to entrust the job to the Koch brothers, who had both bucks and motivation to make a political mark. And that was a big mistake.

As it turns out, the Kochs are also hardcore social conservatives of the sort that have been increasingly out of favor with Americans as a whole, even as they are more impatient with the Republican establishment for relegating them to grunt worker “siddown and shaddup” status whenever there’s any danger of the general public watching them. The GOP’s Tea Party wing was supposed to be this pretend-independent party (that somehow only ran candidates as Republicans and had to agree to uphold the GOP platform in order for the Koch money to flow) that would fulfill some key basic functions. It would get the Republican base fired up to the point of rabidity, if not beyond; it would allow Republicans to offload their justified public reps for racism and bigotry onto an “independent” group that in reality was designed to be about as independent of the GOP as the infamous Bantustans were independent of apartheid-era South Africa. But it was never, ever supposed to be in the driver’s seat of the GOP. As movement Republican Michael Gerson delicately put it, “Republicans benefit from Tea Party momentum. They suffer from Tea Party victories. As part of a political coalition, the Tea Party movement empowers. As the dominant actor, it alienates.”

They weren’t supposed to actually act like a real party that’s capable of electing real candidates, but to simply get the GOP base riled up enough to boost turnout in a mid-term election. But a boosted GOP primary turnout isn’t helpful when the GOP vote is grievously, irreconcilably split between two or more candidates — and that’s what happened in Delaware and a few other locations last Tuesday.

As David Dayen says:

All Christine O’Donnell does is rip off the mask of conservative ideological purity, a mask that had already fallen off and was being stomped on for years. You may remember the Republican caucus in the House and Senate voting against pretty much every Democratic agenda item for the past two years, mostly in unison. Or a little thing called “the impeachment of Bill Clinton.” The only difference between O’Donnell and the “establishment” GOP is that she doesn’t hide her ideology.

And right on cue, the GOP’s leaders moved to prove DDay right:

UPDATE: As if to underline the essential sameness between the “establishment” GOP and the Tea Party faction, the NRSC, fearing a revolt from the base, reversed themselves and sent a $42,000 check to O’Donnell’s campaign, along with a wider-ranging statement of support. A pittance, and this will probably end up the last communication between the NRSC and O’Donnell, but duly noted.

There’s a reason that George W. Bush campaigned in the general election as a “compassionate conservative“. There’s also a reason that his father said “Message: I care” to a group of insurance company employees whose votes he was courting in the New Hampshire primary. It’s because if they ran in the general as full-on conservatives, they could never have made it to the White House.

The Republicans have spent many years catering to the bigotries of their base. Indeed, such catering is at the heart of the Southern Strategy that has been part of their playbook for over forty years, as RNC figurehead chair Michael Steele — who no doubt will be the sacrificial lamb should the Tea Party manage to keep the Republicans from retaking the House — admitted, to the intense anger of Republicans heavily invested in a revisionist history where the Southern strategy only existed during Nixon’s presidency. They use the Southern Strategy to get support for corporate tax cuts, by subtly letting bigoted voters know that cutting taxes would hurt blacks by forcing cuts in social spending — but they are careful to make sure that appeals that have a chance of being seen by the general public are couched strictly in code language, such as “fiscal prudence” and “moral hazard”.

The members of their Tea Party wing, however, aren’t interested in hiding their light behind a bushel — or code words — any more. They have been sheltered from reality to such a degree, by both the party chiefs and their media allies, that they have no idea just how vulnerable (and unpopular) they are in the real world, much less why a code is necessary for them to hide behind. With the original part of the movement stripped away, what’s left is incapable of standing on its own two feet without help from the rich patrons who now run the group. But they’re so far gone that it’s doubtful that even a few resounding losses on their parts will make them face the truth.

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