The Tea Party movement has proved itself a political force in the primaries leading up to November's election. Republicans correctly see the widespread dissatisfaction and disappointment with President Obama as promising the off-year elections will favor the GOP - to what degree is uncertain, but handsomely so by most estimates.
However, Republicans - and conservative Republicans in particular - face several challenges. One is to ensure that the energy represented by the Tea Party movement is captured by the Republicans, and not the other way around. An ascendant Tea Party spirit runs several risks, among them fueling a populist cry for change that is not built on a careful, rational and well-supported reflection of what changes are needed and how best to secure them. For while the Tea Party folks can supply the necessary margin of victory in many races, they cannot themselves at this point provide a comfortable majority - or even a plurality - needed to govern.
Bringing this restive and unsettled spirit into the Republican canoe risks capsizing the vessel before it reaches its intended destination - the 2012 presidential election. That unhappy outcome can be avoided by preaching a solid, well-thought-out message to all potential voters. Clarity and conviction are needed in what conservatives put forth, as well as a large dose of political realism. This recommended something along the lines of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's electorally successful Contract With America in the 1994 congressional elections.
Last week saw the introduction by House Republicans of the new Pledge to America, a document GOP pollster Frank I. Luntz has found lacking in the hammered-out specifics of the 1994 contract, also published about six weeks ahead of the election.
Mr. Luntz found voters preferred stronger words of commitment, such as "contract," to words such as "promise" or "pledge," but he noted that the style of the new document, a clarion against abuses such as bottomless government bailouts and a call for restoring constitutionalist principles of limited government, is superior in many respects to the old contract. The Pledge also seems to have drawn enough blood for Mr. Obama to take to the hustings against it.
For now, it seems most Republicans are happy to feast on disaffection with the in-party and warm themselves with the notion that being the non-Democrats will prove attraction enough to the voters. They probably are right.
But when the party takes power in Congress - or at the very least secures a much-enhanced ability to thwart the schemes and aims of the Democrats - the Republicans will need a coherent and consistent message. And they must be seen delivering on that message if they are to sustain and enlarge their victories. If their victories are insufficient to guarantee conservatives truly commanding heights above both Democrats and moderate Republicans, the challenges increase exponentially.
Consider the momentous and perhaps pivotal issue of the Obama health care reform, with its many restrictions and punitive clauses for nonconformity. The pledge calls for its repeal and replacement with a variety of tax incentives and subsidies to provide insurance access or health savings accounts for a wider population.
One very good idea embraced by the Republican pledge and advanced by Republicans is to permit the sale of health insurance across state lines, thereby increasing cost competition among insurance providers.
But the GOP faces some tough choices. A drive for outright repeal plays into the hands of those who want to portray Republicans as socially hard-hearted. It risks losing at the center as many votes as the GOP may have added through the Tea Party crowd.
A drive to reform health care reform and pull some of its more intrusive teeth runs the risk of reducing the Republicans to the familiar me-too model of "Anything you can do I can do better." It also risks turning the health insurance structure into a largely unworkable scheme if participation is recommended but not mandatory or is mandatory but not enforceable. Maybe those risks are worthwhile.
What to do?
Skillful legislative work is needed to restore greater elements of individual choice. Subsidies and tax breaks face another challenge in any attempt to tie workers (even day workers?) to specific employers when many in the workforce are illegal immigrants operating under the radar. Even with tax breaks or incentives, many businesses - particularly in construction, which use day laborers - may find it cheaper to just muddle along as they are. What will be the real penalties if they do so, and won't this require ever more comprehensive tightening and penalties against employers of illegal immigrants? Is exchanging insurance harassment of individuals for hounding of employers automatically a change for the better? How will this benefit or impair the overall economy?
Clearly, the GOP has its work cut out for it if it wishes to be a governing and not just an electioneering party. If it does not decide to provide firm and clear governance, it can expect electoral dissatisfaction, now the inheritance of the Democrats, to become its own destiny. We'll just see a few years of yo-yoing back and forth as voter dissatisfaction turns first one and then the other party out of power.
It must be remembered that, ultimately, the Contract With America ran out of steam with voters when lawmakers ran out of commitment. But, as Mr. Luntz recently noted, that took 12 years. Things may move more quickly in the current climate. There are other imponderables. To what extent is the Tea Party movement fueled by economic anxiety in the face of lost jobs and cratered IRAs, and to what extent will that force moderate if the recession truly is ending? This does not suggest all the heat will die out, but its temperature may subside enough to reduce its electoral decisiveness. Or not.
Who will be the party's standard-bearer in 2012 - a devoted pledger or a moderate who can appeal to centrist voters while indulging in rhetorical flourishes to keep the right on board? Can a bona-fide conservative get elected? (Is there another Ronald Reagan in the wings?) All good questions impossible to answer authoritatively right now.
The pledge needs not just signatories and endorsers; it needs a long-term, steady commitment, not just high-pitched rhetoric in a heated or convenient moment.
One thing can be said of the Democrats at this juncture - they clearly have an agenda and intend to continue enacting and defending it. What about the Republicans? After all, in the long term, it is difficult to beat something with nothing.
Benjamin Tyree, a former editor for The Washington Times, is a Washington writer and media fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
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