RUSTHOVEN: Tea Party victories send wrong message

June 21, 2014

RusthovenOne benefit of writing a regular column is reader feedback. Occasional kind comments from friends are, of course, encouraging. But critiques are more frequent and often more interesting.

An example is response to my column two weeks back after Mississippi’s Republican primary, where incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran was forced into a run-off he may well lose to a Tea Party-favored candidate. This puts at risk yet another GOP Senate seat—like Dick Lugar’s in Indiana in 2012—that Harry Reid’s Democrats otherwise could not win.

Among the comments was an email starting, “I don’t think you fully appreciate the grass-roots dissatisfaction with the status quo,” followed by observations on ordinary voter frustrations with Washington.

The email was courteous and thoughtful. But its topic sentence is mistaken. This author in fact does appreciate—and largely shares—the dissatisfactions and frustrations that gave rise to the Tea Party movement. Where we part company is on how such dissatisfaction and frustration should be channeled.

Any who doubt the depth and sincerity of grass-roots dissatisfaction have their heads in the sand. A week after the Mississippi primary, Virginia Republicans supplied a more stunning, literally unprecedented example by denying renomination to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

Cantor lost in part for mundane, underreported reasons that have felled many an over-confident incumbent in the past, including not staying in touch with the district. But there’s no question voter frustration with “politics as usual” is real, and that Cantor challenger David Brat prevailed only as a Tea Party-backed instrument for “sending a message.”

What is highly questionable, however, is whether knocking off Cantor is a sensible message, and whether Brat is a sensible messenger. From a conservative standpoint, Cantor’s voting record is close to perfect on pretty much every important issue (taxes, spending, Obamacare, you name it).

So it’s hard to figure out just what Cantor’s done “wrong” that merits Tea Party targeting, other than being part of the so-called Republican “establishment” (whatever that’s supposed to mean). Defeating Cantor does nothing to advance any conservative cause. But it does delight the Obama White House, which found him a combative, effective opponent.

And then there’s picking Brat, who teaches at Randolph-Macon College near Richmond, as one’s messenger. Professor Brat is one of those people who looks in the mirror and sees an instrument of the Almighty. On primary night, he was “humbled that God gave us this win.” He elaborated: “God acts through people, and God acted through the people on my behalf,” yielding “an unbelievable miracle.”

Hmm. Saying “God gave us this win” is not how most would express humility. Knocking off Eric Cantor is not the sort of “miracle” the Vatican considers in investigating candidates for sainthood.

And this is not the kind of rhetoric that attracts voters to the conservative cause. Quite the contrary. It invites easy caricature—an invitation liberal media are delighted to accept—and drives away many who are otherwise persuadable.

All conservatives are dissatisfied with and frustrated by the current administration and the prevailing political culture in our nation’s capital. But how we respond makes a difference.

Booting people like Cantor in favor of folks like Brat certainly “sends a message.” But it doesn’t advance conservative principles. Those of us on the right who criticize the preferred tactics and targets of some in Tea Party leadership do so not in spite of those principles, but because we take them seriously.•


Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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