The Tea Partier in the GOP’s midst

by on June 2nd, 2010

Here is what I wrote in April:

The Republican Party will experience it at the local and state levels first, as Tea Party candidates defeat conventional Republicans and win GOP nominations. Some of those Tea Partiers will be kooky, others will be single-issue ideologues. A few will be anti-immigrant, a smattering will be paranoid. Others will be very like the Republicans they beat.

In November most of the kooks, ideologues, nativists and paranoids will lose to a Democrat. That will cause anguished cries by establishment Republicans: “They cost us Kentucky! They are ruining our party.” The few crazies who win will be magnets for the media and their weird statements will cause embarrassment for the majority of responsible Republicans. After that, individual Tea Partiers – who are shown by research to be as sensible as any other politically involved Americans – will make individual decisions.

Whew, that was fast! Tea Partier Rand Paul won Kentucky’s Republican senatorial primary on June 18. By June 20 he had expressed doubts about the efficacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His reasoning contained two flaws, one legal and the other political. First, a provision of the Act modified a property owner’s right to exclude people when that property was used in public commerce. Second, defending the concept of property rights that forced minorities to the back of the bus was just plain dumb.

Predictably, the gratuitous analysis raised a huge fuss among minorities and in the media. Democrats were only too glad to suggest racism. The Democrats want to brand Paul as an extremist. Paul helped them out. The Democrats want to make Paul the “intolerant” face of the Republican Party. Paul’s willingness to go on television with no preparation is a recipe for more bombs.

Establishment Republicans had not even had a chance to meet the man who had their Kentucky nomination and they were forced to defend him, excuse him or distance themselves from him. They chose distance.

Paul was left to careen along all by himself. Even the most hot-headed GOP senators issued statements that, in total, made Paul look like the inexperienced pop-off that he seems to be. The establishment Republicans should have foreseen the problem. Many people predicted during the campaign that Paul would have trouble with the national media. The GOP establishment in Kentucky backed a boring “I’m-entitled-to-it” candidate. The GOP leaders may not have recognized their choice’s shortcomings because so many of them suffer the same affliction, starting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Whoopee cushion politics

Kentucky’s Republican leaders lack maturity. Like giggling geeks without social graces, the Republican leaders smirk and give the impression that they think they know more than anyone else. They share jokes at others’ expense. They are suspicious of “outsiders.” They whisper in the back of the room during Republican meetings, exchanging knowing glances and grins. They behave like a high school clique. What they know seems to have about the same political usefulness as a whoopee cushion.

So the dire predictions of Kentucky’s GOP establishment have come true: Paul is a loose cannon. During the primary, the GOP leaders warned voters about Paul’s “unusual” ideas and tendency to let his words cause trouble. So why didn’t they have a few advisors ready to counsel Paul before he sat down with one of the cleverest interviewers in TV?

Face it: The Republican establishment – in Washington and in Kentucky – blew it. They did not circle their wagons around their victor. They sulked and consoled the loser. They figured they had time to cozy up to the Tea Partier in their midst. McConnell did embrace Paul after Paul claimed victory in the name of the Tea Party, not the GOP. One bystander said McConnell “looked like he was afraid of catching the flu or something from Paul.”

Paul was fresh meat and the media tigers saw their chance and made a meal of him. When Paul talks, it’s like listening to a college student during a late-night bull session – examining the edges, debating long decided issues, impressed with his ability to verbalize intricate concepts. In politics, that style risks unfavorable interpretations. Two things can prevent Paul from jumping into another frying pan: He can get smart, quickly; or the GOP establishment can get together behind him, even as they dislike him. Place your bets. Will Paul learn quicker than the establishment warms to him? Probably. But beware: If GOP leaders are not there when he needs them most, Paul and other Tea Partiers will feel even more like outsiders in the clubby atmosphere of the GOP.

Let him fail?

The Tea Party offers the Republicans a chance to plug into intensity and to benefit from volunteers with a willingness to work. Instead of reaching out, some within the Kentucky GOP establishment are planning to put a whoopee cushion on Paul’s chair. Think I’m kidding? Some GOP leaders in Kentucky have been discussing whether they will “endorse” Paul – as if Paul’s run-away primary victory needs their blessing. Yes, some GOP leaders have discussed that it might be best to abandon their winner and let him fail in November. That way, the establishment will be done with him. Do they forget that If Paul loses, the Democrats pick up a seat in the Senate?

I wrote last month that Republicans have a habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Are Kentucky Republicans about to do just that? Paul won the nomination decisively. He is the Republican candidate. He could use some help.

Put away the whoopee cushions, kids.

Kenneth E. Feltman