Power Play: Weekend Reading – Can the GOP Handle the Tea Party’s Steam?

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Democrats had a blast throughout the primary season cheering on Republican infighting. From May to September, it was a happy distraction on the left from the dominant political story of the year - the rise of the conservative independents.

Starting with Rand Paul's primary victory in Kentucky and going through Christine O'Donnell's win in Delaware, Democrats unwrapped each new Tea Party/outsider/conservative victory with Christmas-morning enthusiasm.

Power Play has seen more reporting on the life of Christine O'Donnell than anyone from Delaware, ever.

But the fun's all over now. Republicans are competitive in races for a dozen Democrat-held Senate seats, and only one Republican-held seat (Kentucky) seems to be really competitive. Democrats are defending at least 60 House seats and may give up as many as 12 governor's mansions.

Democrats are starting to show a little optimism, if you can call it that, that they will hold the Senate and the House because of a small shrinking in the enthusiasm gap with Republicans in the latest Wall Street Journal poll. But clear-eyed Democrats know that when you end up calling a loss of 38 House seats and 8 Senate seats a victory, you are pretty deep into self-deception.

It's hard to imagine any scenario in which Republicans will not be able to say on Nov. 3 that they benefitted hugely from the influx of energy that came from the small-government Tea Party people who have been shoving around the party establishment all year.

Republicans in Washington may have liked to see things go a different way in Delaware or in a couple of other races, but they're not looking to go back to 2009, when liberal (and some conservative) scribes were writing the epitaph for the GOP.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman/strategist who has served under Tom DeLay and on the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, is unlikely to be spotted wearing a tricorn hat and waving a Gasden flag. But he says he's not concerned about the fed up folks who are remaking his party.

"The Tea Party is a reform element within a center-right electorate that is looking to draw the party back to its heritage as a reform party focused on economic conservatism."

Madden calls the Tea Party "more of a mood than a movement."

And here's where we must divide the Tea Party into parts.

Madden is right about the biggest chunk.

Of the 30 or 35 percent of Americans who like what the Tea Party is brewing, most are independents and Republicans who like the focus on the Constitution and on fiscal restraint. Fatigue with the wars, ethics problems and big-government Republicanism of the previous decade caused many on the right to welcome the idea of shaking up the GOP.

Plus, there's nothing like back-to-back failures, as the party had in 2006 and 2008, to make folks restless.

When members of Congress form a Tea Party Caucus or a candidate quotes Thomas Jefferson, the target audience is the folks who might not march themselves, but who are glad someone is causing a stir. They're more likely to be Republicans. They're angry, but not apoplectic. They want a better Republican Party, not a third party.

But there are plenty who do.

The Tea Party has become a banner under which many disparate political groups on the right have rallied. The famously factious libertarians had enough juice to get Ron Paul in the mix for the 2008 primaries but have never been able to outmatch the social conservatives or the big business within the party when it came to organization or money. But, they provided enthusiasm and ground troops at a time when the party lacked both, and that gives the libertarian right enough power to steer the GOP, at least temporarily.

They are deadly serious about the Tea Party brand and see within it the makings of what they have long, long wanted: A viable party constructed around individual liberty and constitutional purity.

Even now, bitter turf wars are being waged among the groups that are trying to control the brand, but there seems to be a general consensus that the GOP offers the only available outlet for turning back what these liberty lovers see as a gross usurpation of personal freedoms in the past 21 months.

Republicans, reeling from the ignominies of 2006 and 2008, and with a shared shock at the size and aggressiveness at the Obama agenda, laid aside their old, bitter difference with the libertarian right and everybody has had a good time getting honking mad.

And there's no reason to believe that the coalition brought together by Obama will unravel before November. The shared fear of a European-style government in America has created the very "truce" on social and foreign policy issues that many Republicans have longed for.

No matter how much the White House pokes at John Boehner as an insider, he's still far preferable to Nancy Pelosi, to both casual and committed Tea Partiers.

Ron Bonjean, who worked under then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and led the communications effort for Senate Republicans, said the real dangers come after a successful election.

"If the GOP is elected to a majority in Congress and falls short of its campaign promises, the Tea Party will likely force many Republicans out during the primaries next cycle," Bonjean said in an email.

Quite so. And it could be worse than that.

As one veteran of both Capitol Hill and the Bush administration (who had to do her own battle with the angry right during the close of the Bush years) told Power Play:

"I think Republicans are trying to swallow it; and if they're smart and strategic they'll channel that anger into support for concrete policy action in the year ahead," she said. "But that doesn't mean the Tea Partiers won't ultimately decide they are against being inside the belly of the beast and fight their way out."

This Republican insider paints a picture of an unhappy future -- breakaway state parties, a divided House majority and an unsustainable coalition.

The Whig Party was formed in 1833 as a common banner under which opponents to President Andrew Jackson's agenda could rally. The Whigs were more pro-business, generally speaking, than the bank-busting Jackson, but the Whigs were basically dedicated to the idea that Jackson was a dangerous man who was turning the presidency into despotism and a cult of personality.

But within a decade, the differing desires of the members of the coalition drove the party toward irrelevancy. Without Kind Andrew, what was the point? Martin Van Buren didn't really get the blood pumping the way Old Hickory had.

After a brief revival, the party was all but dead by 1852. Existing to oppose presidential power did not provide sufficient answers to questions like slavery and whether to annex new territories.

You might say that Republicans are currently on the cusp of Whiggery. The animating principal of the party today is to stop the Obama Democrats

That's ok for the short term. It's certainly going to be enough to give Democrats a sound thrashing in about four weeks.

But for Republicans, the test of long-term viability will be how effectively they can swallow all that tea and end up with a coherent platform. Resolving the social and foreign policy issues currently laid aside will be no easy task for the new Republican Party.

It will be even harder for Republicans to use their prospective majority to deliver what the activists are looking for. With a very stubborn Democrat in the White House and a filibuster in the Senate, even majorities in both houses of Congress would be no guarantee that Republicans really will act on the ideas currently being espoused.

A Senate majority with Rand Paul and Scott Brown would produce plenty of heat, but how much legislation? As the GOP insider said, disappointed activists may opt to "fight their way out" of the party.

But those are all questions for another day. Right now, Republicans are like a man looking at a car he can't quite afford in the showroom and worrying about where he'll park it. As the president points out nearly every day, they still don't have the keys.

But they're getting awfully close.

Democrats may be able to take some pleasure in watching the Republicans fight over who's driving after the election, but there is no sign that those frictions will prevent a trouncing of the majority party next month.

In fact, it is the current friction in the Democratic Party - liberals versus the administration on foreign policy, Blue Dogs versus progressives on tax cuts, Hispanics versus the president's go-slow approach on immigration, etc. - that promises to have much more effect.

Crabby, disappointed and exhausted, the Democratic base will not return as it did when the Democrats were in their own Whig phase, opposing the policies and person of George W. Bush.

Republicans face an uncertain future, yes. But sadly for Democrats, their immediate future seems very certain indeed.