Tea Party cannibals

The Tea Party has an appetite for RINOs, but not for the kind of compromises that bring a party together

David Frum

Christine O’Donnell had barely finished making a meal of Rep. Mike Castle when she appeared on Good Morning America to deplore Republican “cannibalism.”

Tuesday’s message: “Get out of our party, you disgusting RINO moderates.”

Wednesday’s message: “Don’t forget to send me $2,400 on your way out the door.”

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Tea Party Republicans have made it very clear: They’d rather deliver Delaware’s Senate seat to the Democrats than accept a moderate like Mike Castle as their Republican nominee. Yet they are shocked and offended that any mainstream Republican might harbor equivalent misgivings about Rand Paul, the Tea Party-backed GOP senate candidate in Kentucky.

Tea Partiers treat mainstream Republicans as the enemy, then ask them for money.

Tea Party Republicans say in effect, “I’m not working to make Mitch McConnell the GOP’s Senate leader. I care about advancing my agenda. But I’m calling on you to sacrifice your agenda in order to make Mitch McConnell the GOP Senate leader.”

The game cannot be played this way. It cannot be that Tea Party Republicans deem mainstream Republicans the supreme enemy – and then demand that mainstream Republicans salute the flag of party unity.

Tea Party Republicans vilify Republicans who voted for TARP. Indeed, TARP is as much a litmus test for them as the Obama healthcare plan. But what about those Republicans who believe that this difficult vote saved the global

economy from a second great depression? Republican candidates who honored the request of a Republican president and did the right thing are one by one facing defeat in primaries. After which Republicans who care about things like preventing the collapse of the nation’s banking system are asked to open our checkbooks and give generously to those who would have voted to wreck the world? What kind of deal is that?

The Tea Party is not a party. It’s a faction within a party. Factions have to learn to work together, accept compromises. But sometimes a faction imagines it has the strength to go it alone. It cannibalizes its own coalition, rewrites rules. In that case, the faction had better assess its strength very precisely, because it will find itself getting just what it wanted: it will be left to its own devices. That’s the story of the Democratic party in 1972, when labor unions and business deserted the McGovernites. It’s the story of the GOP in 1964, when pro-civil rights Republicans and other moderates deserted Goldwater. All Republicans hope it will not be the story of the GOP in 2010 and 2012. But if it is to be avoided, it cannot be only the moderate-minded Republicans who struggle to avert it.

We’re going to have to see greater wisdom from the Tea Party Republicans, if they’re capable of it.

Some Tea Party victories have been very positive things for the GOP. The successful Scott Brown campaign in Massachusetts exemplified politics at its best, building a broad coalition on behalf of a unifying party idea: halting the Obama health plan. Similarly, it makes sense that Alaska Republicans would recoil at the nepotism of the Murkowski family and prefer a fresh face.

But the nominations of Rand Paul and Sharron Angle, followed now by those of Christine O’Donnell and Carl Paladino disregard not only pragmatic concerns for electability, but also the first concerns of politics: fitness for public office and the good government of the country.

I have always thought of the Republican Party as the party of responsibility, the party of people who had more to lose than to gain, the party of parents, business owners, savers and investors. That conception has been challenged by many of this year’s primary results. Now it is the task of all Republicans to restore the party to its better ideals and higher mission.

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