There’s a strain of schadenfreude that often masquerades as political strategy. It leads rational, thinking men and women to cheer on opposing parties that nominate seemingly unelectable radicals and lunatics for high office. Bully, they shout, the differences between the two parties have never been starker! How could voters stand on the side of idiocy? Sometimes, this notion holds, and the crazies go down in a spectacular implosion with the ideological shrapnel even wounding the more moderate members of their party. And, of course, sometimes it fails—and then you have Speaker Newt Gingrich.
You can forgive Democrats for clucking over the triumph of Christine O’Donnell. This has been a political season devoid of any real good news for them, and, in fact, it has the look of one of the most epic electoral disasters in American history. So, when Delaware Republicans cast aside a venerable nine-term congressman with broad appeal in favor of a onetime practitioner of witchcraft who has railed against the horrors of masturbation, Democrats could barely contain themselves. Nancy Pelosi called the triumph of O’Donnell and other ideologues a “very positive” development. Donna Brazile proclaimed, “The Tea Party has made Democrats the lesser of two evils, swinging the door wide open for them to preserve their majority.”
Yet, for all the short-term benefits that flow from O’Donnell’s victory—namely, the increasing likelihood that the Democrats will hang on to an imperiled Senate seat and, therefore, the Senate—she’s part of a trend that merits no such happy talk. Elections are not just occasions when seats are held or lost. They are moments when ideas gain currency, when the ideological mainstream is remade. Candidacies like the Tea Parties’ have historically had the effect of transporting issues from the province of cranks into acceptable political discourse. We saw this time and again during the conservative movement’s takeover of the Republican Party—as supply-side economics and social conservatism first reared their heads in Senate races and aborted presidential candidacies, before making their rapid migration toward the political center.
The Tea Party is filled with candidates like O’Donnell, who have a predilection for goofy crusades and extreme statements. As Bradford Plumer documented in the previous issue of The New Republic, they have displayed an odd fetish for amending the Constitution. A number of Tea Party candidates, for instance, would like to strip away the Seventeenth Amendment—you know, the one providing for the direct election of U.S. senators. Others are merely content to knock out a few Fourteenth Amendment clauses that guarantee citizenship to anyone born here. Then there is Colorado gubernatorial hopeful Dan Maes, who believes that municipal efforts to promote bicycle use are a harbinger of world government.
Some of these candidates will prove the optimistic musings of Democrats right. In a few instances, like Delaware, the GOP will likely be penalized for nominating extremists. But, on the whole, we are about to welcome what might be the most radical Congress in recent memory. Both the Tea Party and its Republican allies are in the process of taking traditional, limited-government conservatism and transforming it into a new beast: a constitutional vision that would radically constrain the federal government.
In the face of this challenge to liberalism, it is not enough for Democrats to play pundit—to merely take to the TV talk shows and express their hope that the public will intuit and then reject the new radicalism. Democrats need to shred it. And, unfortunately, Barack Obama seems to have no interest in mounting a full-scale assault on this ideology. When The New York Times reported that the White House was mulling ads attacking the Tea Party, David Axelrod furiously denied any such plans. This seems a horrible misreading of the electorate. How will the public understand the implications of the Tea Party’s constitutional conservatism if they are not explored—and not attacked? The president and his party can’t even bring themselves to explain how a Republican majority will redouble its assault on Social Security and Medicare, let alone expose the darker reaches of Tea Party thinking. Choices are only clear when we make them so.
This piece ran in the October 14, 2010, issue of the magazine.