|The “Republican Establishment” Rides Again|
|BY TROY SENIK |
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 02 2012
As the first month of the Republican presidential race draws to a close, a fissure that has laid dormant within the party is coming to define the campaign: the divide between the conservative insurgency personified by the Tea Party and what’s conventionally referred to as “the Republican establishment.”
The former has ricocheted between several different candidates over the past year – from Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry, then to Herman Cain, followed by Newt Gingrich (and, to a lesser extent, Rick Santorum). The establishment, by contrast, has been consistently supportive of the candidacy of Mitt Romney. The shortcomings of the conservative candidates – which has led to a failure by Tea Party-types to consolidate around a single campaign – has given a decided advantage to Romney; one that only compounds his preexisting superiority in terms of money, organization and name recognition.
This leaves the Republican Party in an awkward predicament. The Tea Party, though it has typically suffered some political growing pains, was almost solely responsible for the groundswell of Republican support that saw the GOP recapture the House of Representatives and swell its ranks in the Senate in 2010. Now Tea Partiers are being asked to march forward under the banner of a presidential candidate who’s done little to assuage fears that he doesn’t share their values.
Rather than attempting to pacify the Tea Party rank and file, the establishment has fallen back on a bizarre strategy: denying its own existence. In a recent interview with Time Magazine, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – ironically, a man possessing a strong conservative record – said "I don't know what the Republican establishment is. I haven't learned the secret handshake, and I don't know where to go for a membership card." Methinks the governor doth protest too much.
While it’s an informal designation, the establishment is very much alive and well. In fact, they’re the group of Republicans that has been on the receiving end of just as much Tea Party fury as big-government liberals. In some senses, the Tea Party actually reserves a special level of disdain for this group; as Republicans, the thought goes, they should know better.
So who are they? Generally speaking, they are long-time denizens of Washington or other loci of power. They are institutionalized elected officials, money men, party leaders, or grandees of business, consultancies or advocacy groups. And they are often made suspect by the duration of their power, a trait that gives pause to conservatives who believe that a dedication to limited government entails a devotion to not assimilating to the ways of the Beltway.
Their titles, however, are not definitive. It’s possible to hold any one of the positions above and immunize oneself against Potomac Fever. The defining characteristic of the establishment is what they believe. They prioritize the goal of winning elections over the policy changes that such elections should yield. They may blanch at expanding government further, but they have no appetite for the labor involved in rolling back the state or the media derision that will accompany it. They find the operative beliefs of the conservative movement convenient only insofar as they can be turned into campaign slogans. And, in moments of whispered honesty, they will often reveal their contempt for the rank and file voters who populate their party.
The establishment had its turn at the wheel over the last decade and the conservative movement reaped a whirlwind as a result. Federal spending and deficits increased; regulation proliferated; entitlements expanded; embarrassing pork projects passed through Congress as part of a gentleman’s agreement in which both parties agreed to gorge their special interest benefactors; bailouts were given to the financial and automotive industries, and, in the end, the Republican Party was rebuked at the ballot box.
Conservatives should not delude themselves into thinking this is a passing trend. Over the past century, only three men – Calvin Coolidge, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan – were able to beat back establishment pretensions and earn the party’s presidential nomination. As of this writing, it looks unlikely that a similarly situated candidate will earn the nomination in 2012.
Many Tea Partiers and their sympathists will undoubtedly interpret this as a source of grief. But their demoralization is premature. A short-term focus on beating the establishment has not yielded fruit. That calls not for sorrow, but for a long-term focus on replacing it outright.