Michael Barone, that walking encyclopedia of American political history, has often made the comparison between the development of the Tea Party and the entry of the peaceniks into American political life:
Both movements represent a surge in political activity by hundreds of thousands, even millions, of previously uninvolved citizens.
Both movements focused on what are undeniably central, not peripheral, political issues: war and peace, the size and scope of government.
Both movements initially proclaimed themselves nonpartisan or bipartisan, but quickly channeled their efforts into one political party — the peace movement in the Democratic party, the tea-party movement in the Republican party.
But new movements prove troublesome for the political pros, and nowhere more than in the most problematic part of our political system, the presidential nominating process. (Is it just a coincidence that this is the one part of the system not mentioned at all in the Constitution?)
Peaceniks and tea partiers naturally want nominees who are true to their vision. They are ready to support newcomers and little-vetted challengers over veteran incumbents who have voted the wrong way on issues they care about.
But the things that make candidates attractive to movements can also make them unattractive to independent voters.
The Democrats struggled with this in the 1968, 1972, and 1976 cycles. The old-timers pushed through the accomplished Hubert Humphrey over the diffident Eugene McCarthy in 1968, but they lost to George McGovern in 1972. He was a more serious candidate than is generally remembered, but he did lose 49 states to Richard Nixon.
The anti-war movement didn’t get started in earnest until 1967, and Lyndon Johnson didn’t declare his intention not to run again until early 1968. The lateness of the primary calendar made it possible for Bobby Kennedy to declare late, and their paucity made it possible for the party elders to anoint Humphrey regardless of those votes. By 1972, the McGovernites had taken over the levers of power, opened up the primaries, and made most of them proportional. This insured a longer primary campaign, and did nothing to prevent a credentials fight over the Illinois delegation at the Convention. In the event, McGovern was nominated with fewer than 60% of the delegates, and defeated with less than 38% of the vote. The military defeatism and the electoral defeats helped usher the Scoop Jackson Democrats out of the party and, eventually, Ronald Reagan into the White House. The Democrats would elect the center-left but feckless Carter, and the decidedly un-peacenik DLC founder Bill Clinton, and it wouldn’t be until 2008 that they elected Obama in an encore of the first anti-war movement.
The Tea Party, while nascent in 2007, didn’t really gather steam until early 2009, almost four years ahead of the next Presidential election, and the Republicans in 2012 have likewise done away with early winner-take-all primaries. So it probably sits somewhere between anti-War 1968 and isolationist 1972. The Establishment is weakened, but not dead yet. If nominating Romney would be more like 1968, giving Gingrich the nod would look a lot more like 1972.
Of course, as Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Republicans not being Democrats, should Romney be the nominee, he likely won’t have to accept the nomination in the middle of police putting down riots from disgruntled Tea Party members. It’s unlikely that large cuts in spending will lead many Republicans into a socialist Exodus.
The similarities are alarming enough. Just as Humprhey’s defeat helped discredit the old liberalism, so a Romney defeat – or even a Romney presidency – could finish the job of discrediting vanilla conservatism that George W. Bush started, and open the door for a 1972-like candidacy by a Rand Paul-like figure. I don’t think I’m unduly cynical when I say that that very hope has led some in the libertarian wing of the party to campaign against Daniels, Perry, or Pawlenty as “not conservative,” or “not presidential,” while being willing to go along with a Romney nomination. (They’ll be disappointed. That so many in the Tea Party have cast their lot with Gingrich rather than the catastrophically irresponsible Ron Paul is actually a healthy sign that the word “conservative” will not be re-branded to mean “libertarian.”)
Republicans are looking for a conservative who is both ideologically grounded and a practical politician. While that may have been on offer earlier in the process, it’s not now, with the nomination fight now looking like that Star Trek episode where Kirk divides into two separate personalities, one nice but passive, the other more aggressive and less principled.
Romney’s problem is that even if you consider his public persona to be authentic, he seems rather timid for a man who built his career risking capital at the gaming tables of private equity. A early Marco Rubio endorser, he has Chris Christie’s support, but campaigns like Charlie Crist. His reaction to individual Social Security accounts as fiscally irresponsible confirms his image as narrowly technocratic. He campaigns as the safe, sane, sober, responsible alternative to both Gingrich and Obama, and it may well be that the American people want safe, sane, sober, and responsible after the drama of the last four years, even if it does represent a lost opportunity to do more.
Those who caricature Gingrich’s appeal as mere media-hatred, though, miss the point. Such an appeal, while superficial, isn’t just limited to Republicans; ask Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Showing backbone in clear, simple terms is not nothing, although it’s not enough. And it seems to give way to an opportunism of its own at inconvenient moments.
I’m not sure that Gingrich would lead to a 1964-type down-ticket meltdown. At the beginning of 1972, Nixon’s Gallup approval ratings were well over 50%, and stayed there until the onset of Watergate. Obama has nowhere near that level of public support, and an impending Presidential defeat would let Senate and House Republicans campaign all the more effectively as a check on Obama’s power. In 1972, the Democrats picked up a net 2 seats in the Senate, and lost only 13 seats of a 255-seat pre-election caucus in the House. Johnson’s approvals touched 80% when his party went from 258 to 295 seats in the House, and from 64 to 66 seats in the Senate. Even a Gingrich candidacy wouldn’t result in that kind of wipeout, although it would probably cost us a shot at the Senate.
Sadly, that might be enough. Unlike the Democrats, we can’t afford to wander in the political wilderness for another couple of decades. If Obama were re-elected, and we failed to retake the Senate, Obamacare would be permanently enshrined into law, and the American citizen transformed into a subject. Obama is willing to use executive power up to and beyond the fullest extent permissible by law. Congress’s best means of asserting its part of the check-and-balance system is the power of the purse. But Senate Democrats have deprived Congress of that power, putting government spending on auto-pilot by not even bringing a budget up for a vote. So failing to take the Senate would put all the burden back on the House Republicans to find a credible way to threaten – and if need be, go through with – a government shutdown, without committing political suicide in the process.
If nominating Romney is enough to help us carry the Senate, even if it isn’t enough to get us back to the White House, it will put the party in a position of strength to challenge him, especially given the Senate partisan profile up for re-election in 2014.
This isn’t a matter of giving in to the Establishment. If there were no other credible choices, if this were 2008, post-Colorado, and I were left with a meaningless vote, that would be one thing. But there’s nothing the matter with concluding that while the party Establishment was too quick to line up behind Romney in the first place, I can make my own choice to support him now, for my own reasons, at a time when my vote – fortunately – still matters. It’s called deciding, and that’s a very different thing from having something decided for you.
To this extent, Barone’s final paragraph is instructive: “Tea partiers will grouse if Romney is nominated. But maybe they need patience and perseverance. One lesson of history is that a movement can reshape a party. Another is that it takes time.”