Back when the rather radical and ill-thought-through movement known as the John Birch Society—they thought, among other things, that Dwight Eisenhower was perhaps a communist—was still famous and controversial, conservative Ronald Reagan was running for office. A group of Birchers, surveying the field, said that of all those running his stands seemed most congenial, so they would support him. This set off Drudgelike sirens among journalists: Aha! Reagan unmasked as a radical! Why else would radicals support him? So they rushed to demand that he respond to this embarrassment.
Well, he said pleasantly, they said they support me, I didn’t say I support them.
He said it mildly, as if the reporters had misunderstood the story. This left them scratching their heads, and the story went away, as stories do. But his feint worked because it was grounded in truth. Reagan was neither extreme nor a Bircher, but there were areas in which he agreed with the Birchers, such as the threat of communism. He also had to function as a practical politician: He wasn’t going to tell them to take their votes elsewhere. So he made it clear they were for him, while suggesting they’d bowed to his views, not he to theirs.
This might be a good template for how Republicans approach the Tea Party as 2010 approaches. No, the Tea Party is not the John Birch Society. To note one difference, it does not coalesce around the idea of conspiracy so much as antipathy—to the increasing size, role and demands of government. As this is in line with general Republican thinking and philosophy, Republican candidates should happily accept its support while sticking to their own views and stands, whatever they are. Reagan didn’t say he was so grateful for Bircher support that on reflection Dwight Eisenhower really was a communist. He just nodded and kept walking.
For those candidates who are themselves Tea Party, and who identify more with a rebellion than an organization, some advice: Get conservative, quick. Which is another way of saying: Get serious. Conservatives are not fringe and haven’t been accused of being fringe since they got themselves a president, in 1980. He cared about reality, about the facts of the world, and bothered to know them. He bothered to think about them. He respected process, or rather respected the reality of it and learned to master it.
He also tried to put his arms around those who disagreed with him; he loved his foes into submission by showing regard for them. “Come walk with me,” he said, in 1984. And they did. And they got a new name, Reagan Democrats. Some of them wear it proudly, still. Here’s something that sounds corny but is true: Only love makes great political movements. Movements based on resentment, anger and public rage always fade, they rise and fall, they never stay. If you came to play, get serious.
Members of the Tea Party are not going to vote Democratic, and the Democrats have figured this out. Someone noted on cable the other day that only months ago many Democrats still hoped they might benefit to some degree from the Tea Party’s populist spirit, and attempted a certain tentative sympathy. True, but they did it like anthropologists discovering a new tribe in Borneo: “Come. No hurt. Be friend.” Now, seeing the Tea Party is not gettable or co-optable, the Democrats are attempting to demonize them, and use them to demonize the GOP.
Thus the new DNC scare ad, which features the usual “Jaws”-like monster music, and then the charge that the Tea Party and the GOP are “one and the same.” Not only that, they’re cooking up a plan to “get rid of” or privatize Social Security and Medicare, repeal the 17th Amendment, and abolish the departments of energy and education and the EPA.
Your average viewer will see this not as information but as theater, like Demon Sheep, and of course propaganda, though some will perk up at abolishing the agencies. But the ad signals a central Democratic argument for the fall, which The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder summed up as “We may be incompetent, but they’re crazy.”
It’s a sign of Democratic panic that a week ago they were saying what was wrong with the GOP was they have no plan, while now what’s wrong is that they do have one.
The problem for the Democrats, however, is not a new Contract With America, or the Tea Party. Their problem is Chris Christie.
National Republicans don’t want to talk about specific cuts in spending for the obvious reason: The Obama administration is killing itself, and when your foe is self-destructing, you must not interrupt. Let the media go forward each day reporting the bad polls. Turn it into “Franco: still dead.” Don’t let the media turn it into a two-part story: “Obama is Struggling and The Republicans Will Cut Your Benefits.”
That is classic, smart political thinking, but wrong. The public thinks we’re sinking as a nation. They want to know someone has a plan to help. The most promising leader in that respect is Mr. Christie, the New Jersey governor, who just closed an $11 billion budget gap without raising taxes. He is famously blunt and doesn’t speak in those talking points that make you wonder, “Should I kill myself now with rude stabs to the chest, or should I just jump screaming from the window?”
On “Morning Joe” this week he said, “There were a lot of hard cuts and difficult things to do in there, but fact of the matter is we’re trying to treat people like adults. They know that we’re in awful shape, and they know that no one else is around anymore to pay for the problems that won’t hurt them.”
What about the argument that in a recession we need stimulus spending? “It’s dead wrong. More spending with what? The federal government continuing to print more and more money and leaving that debt for our kids? It will only grind the economy down further.”
On public schools: Teachers complain when they’re getting “4% and 5% salary increases a year in a 0% inflation world. They get free health benefits from the day they’re hired for their entire family until the day they die. They believe they are entitled to this shelter from the recession when the people who are paying for that shelter are the people who have been laid off, who’ve lost their homes, had their hours cut back. And all we ask them to do is freeze their salary for one year and pay 1.5% of their salary for their health benefits. . . . As much as I love teachers, everyone’s got to be a part of the sacrifice.”
Mr. Christie was direct, unadorned: You can’t tax your way out of a spending problem, you’ve got to stop spending. Governors have budgets for which they’re held accountable, so he had to move. But Mr. Christie’s way is also closer than most national Republicans have come—or Democrats will come—to satisfying the public desire that someone step forward, define the problem, apply common sense, devise a way through, do what’s needed.
He’s going to break through in a big way. The answer to our political problems lies in clarity, competence and courage, not a visit to crazy town. And he knows how to put out his hand. “As much as I love teachers.” That’s good.