Entitlement reform has become a leading issue in this year’s Republican primaries. I don’t mean the kind of entitlement reform associated with Medicare or Social Security. I’m referring to the Republican Party’s establishment figures and their exaggerated sense of political entitlement.
The most recent example is in Delaware, where despite being outspent 32 to 1, insurgent candidate Christine O'Donnell trumped nine-term GOP Rep. Michael Castle by 53 percent to 47 percent for the Senate nomination.
Mr. Castle, who has spent a lifetime as a political incumbent, responded to this humiliating loss with conduct unbecoming a gentleman. Instead of graciously acknowledging defeat and closing ranks with his party’s nominee, Mr. Castle trashed her. Sniping from his website, he attacked Miss O'Donnell as untrustworthy and unfit for office.
By trying to ensure that Miss O'Donnell loses the election, Mr. Castle undermines his own party’s prospects for a Senate takeover in November. So strong is his sense of entitlement to the Senate nomination that he feels justified in being disloyal to the very party he has spent his adult life serving.
If it were only a personal matter, it would be sad to see this once respected politician end his political legacy embittered because the voters foiled his Senate ambitions. But Mr. Castle is not the only Delaware GOP establishment figure trying to torpedo the party’s nominee. State Party Chairman Tom Ross has lodged a complaint against the O’Donnell campaign and the Tea Party Express for improper coordination. It is as if the insiders see the Republican Party as their private fiefdom.
Nor is the Delaware GOP an aberration. Embattled Republican moderates around the country seem to feel justified in taking actions that could keep Democrats in office rather than lose GOP sinecures to which they feel personally entitled.
In Florida, Republican primary voters jettisoned Gov. Charles Crist in favor of conservative challenger Marco Rubio. Jilted, Mr. Crist opted to run as an independent, even though splitting the Republican vote could produce a win for Democrats. In Alaska, incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski has decided to run a hopeless write-in campaign after losing her primary re-election bid to challenger Joe Miller. In Colorado, where Tea Party-backed outsider Ken Buck beat GOP insider Scott McInnis for the Senate nomination, embittered Republican leaders have been slow to coalesce around the newcomer. Similar dynamics apply in Nevada, where Sharron Angle is running neck and neck against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, according to the latest polls, despite her having to contend with a hostile GOP establishment.
The Republican Party’s responses in Delaware and other Tea Party upsets across the country are putting those chapters of the GOP in peril of irrelevancy. The year 2010 is a moment of profound cultural and political change in America.
In a different season, such petulance might have strategic significance. But not in 2010. These various “moderates” and party operatives will be swept away by the coming storm - next and last to be seen as post-storm debris hanging undecorously next to old tires and broken awnings. As a party, broadly, the GOP will embrace its new voters and its old principles and thereby profit from the energized grass-roots activists whose efforts surely would flow to a third party next time if thwarted by the Republican establishment this time.
Despite their years of expertise, some Beltway insiders of all varieties - press, pundits, politicians and strategists - some friends of mine - only dimly understand the Tea Party phenomenon. Spontaneous in its formation and wide-ranging in its composition, the Tea Party upwelling is the first genuine grass-roots movement in American politics in decades.
Strategists talk a lot about grass roots, but the dirty secret in modern politics is that the grass roots generally have been superfluous. What has mattered is message and money. This is true for Democrats and Republicans. No wonder then that many insiders were stunned and perplexed by authentic grass-roots activists, hooting at them in town-hall meetings, organizing caucuses to discuss constitutional principles, holding rallies and protests that weren’t decreed by a leader or sanctioned by a hierarchy, and descending on Washington by the hundreds of thousands. For the left, it must be particularly terrifying to see the same 21st-century technology and social networking that propelled Barack Obama in 2008 - and to which they felt entitled as their exclusive domain - hijacked by opponents of the Obama agenda.
Nothing better illustrates the old world confronting the new than the early threat by National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) insiders to withhold money from Miss O'Donnell’s campaign. For insiders, the power of the purse is paramount. But these are new times. Overnight, Internet contributions swelled Miss O'Donnell’s war chest from $20,000 cash on hand to more than $1 million - thus revealing the irrelevancy of the NRSC to the outcome of this contest. No doubt, this lapse in judgment by the NRSC fueled the wave of contributions to Miss O'Donnell, and, conversely, will cause a corresponding decline in contributions to the GOP House and Senate fundraising arms as voters eager for change bypass party committees and give directly to candidates.
Grass-roots activists are sending the GOP a message: Reform or perish. Shrewd incumbents such as Arizona Sen. John McCain paid heed, shifted right and won.
Others may get short-term satisfaction from making life difficult for their conservative rivals, but they will be remembered as a mere temporary pimple on the elephant’s trunk.
“Sore loser” is not much of a political epitaph - particularly for those “moderates” who always have held themselves out as selfless and better than us mere conviction politicians. This grass-roots rising has every potential to endure, evolving into the dominant political party with the power to sweep away irredentist “establishment” Republicans.
Tony Blankley is the author of “American Grit: What It Will Take to Survive and Win in the 21st Century” (Regnery, 2009) and vice president of the Edelman public relations firm in Washington.