Here's a handy way to sum up the problem facing the conservative movement. Just hours before Kevin McCarthy was elected House majority leader on Thursday, The Washington Post's Robert Costa tweeted this:
My take: the tea party missed its moment. Biggest vacuum of power in yrs and they wavered http://t.co/miOVrjzQ1F
— Robert Costa (@costareports) June 19, 2014
Yes, taking out House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia was, to the extent the Tea Party helped, a major accomplishment. But as Costa wrote in the aftermath of Cantor's loss, it's pretty clear that, having won the war, the Tea Party had little interest in winning the peace:
Longtime conservative activist L. Brent Bozell called several reporters late Tuesday to boast about the Tea Party's stunning upset of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia's Republican primary. When asked what he would do next, Bozell laughed and said he was going to have some more lasagna with the conservative operatives who happened to be dining at his house.
Across the Potomac River in his first-floor suite at the Capitol, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of California started making calls, too — but not to the press. McCarthy instead began dialing fellow House Republicans, reassuring them that in spite of the shocking news, their caucus was not imploding. If they were worried about what happens next, he was happy to help. [Washington Post]
The conservative "outsiders" were busy eating and drinking. Meanwhile, insider Kevin McCarthy hustled, working the phones hard — like Jerry Maguire after being fired. But the problem is bigger than hustle. The lesson is this: It's much easier to destroy things than it is to build things.
What was the campaign to defeat Cantor even about? Was it merely about replacing one of the 435 House members? Or sending a message? Or was it about actually changing the party's leadership? If it was the last, the follow-through left much to be desired.
In that regard, Tea Party conservatives were clearly more interested in taking down (or simply attempting to take down) Cantor than in fielding an electable alternative capable of ascending to majority leader. It's fun to destroy things, but hard work to build coalitions, sell ideas, and implement policy. It's wise to have a plan for what to do after you've toppled the regime. Conservatives would do well to devote a little more time to thinking about such things in the future.
But there's more: Costa's report preceded a Washington Examiner story that came on its heels, noting that Raul Labrador didn't even have the cellphone numbers of his colleagues. It's easy to mock this as an example of a lack of competence or preparedness, but would you expect an outsider to have easy access to the cellphone numbers of 218 Republicans?
Conservative leader Morton Blackwell is fond of noting that "political technology is philosophically neutral." This means that neither conservatives nor liberals have a lock on running competent or technologically proficient campaigns.
That's certainly true in terms of the Left vs. Right divide, but what about the insider vs. outsider split within the GOP?
Isn't it likely that — if the defining difference between the two sides is the insider vs. outsider schism — that the "ruling class" (the "establishment") would necessarily have the upper hand against an outsider in a race that, by definition, consists of members of a pretty exclusive club?
Isn't this a catch-22 that excludes genuine Tea Party favorites from ever being selected for leadership? If Raul Labrador had spent the last four years in Congress climbing the greasy pole of politics, backslapping, and horse trading with enough of his colleagues to win the majority leader post, wouldn't that, in and of itself, have disqualified him from being the Tea Party guy?
Do they want to remain a revolutionary force, or actually govern? And can outsiders become insiders without losing their outsiderness? These are the kinds of questions the Tea Party activists must wrestle with as they enter the next stage of development — how to actually govern after they win.