Friday, September 17, 2010

David Brooks and the possible backlash against the Tea Party GOP

I really don't know why I bother with David Brooks -- he seems so rational, at least for a conservative, and yet gets so much wrong (he's not so much political analyst as political opiner who pushes ill-conceived theories) -- but, well, humour me just for this post.

In his NYT column today, Brooks argues that the liberal contention of a likely backlash from independents and moderates against an increasingly right-wing Republican Party is really just a myth -- it isn't happening and won't be happening this year:

There's only one problem with this theory. There is no evidence to support it. The Republican Party may be moving sharply right, but there is no data to suggest that this has hurt its electoral prospects, at least this year.

I asked the election guru Charlie Cook if there were signs that the Tea Party was scaring away the independents. "I haven't seen any," he replied. I asked another Hall of Fame pollster, Peter Hart, if there were Republican or independent voters so alarmed by the Tea Party that they might alter their votes. He ran the numbers and found very few potential defectors.


Nor is there evidence that the Tea Party's success has changed moderates' perceptions about Republicans generally. According to a survey published in July by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Americans feel philosophically closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats. Put another way, many moderates see Democrats like Nancy Pelosi as more extreme than Republicans like John Boehner.

Nor is there any sign that alarm over the Tea Party is hurting individual Republican candidates.

Far be it from me to question the eternal wisdom of pollsters, and, to an extent, Brooks is right. The state of the economy is a far more pressing issue for Americans than the state of the GOP, and even if the state of the economy isn't the Democrats' fault, voters are likely to vent their fear and anger by voting against the party in power, namely, the Democrats. That's just the way it goes. And he's right that the full impact of the growing extremism of the GOP, including the Tea Party takeover of much of it, likely won't be felt in electoral terms until well after the November midterms:

But that damage is all in the future. Right now, the Tea Party doesn't matter. The Republicans don't matter. The economy and the Democrats are handing the G.O.P. a great, unearned revival. Nothing, it seems, is more scary than one-party Democratic control.

Unearned indeed, but great? We shall see.

The fact is, we jut don't know how much the Tea Party will matter and how exactly voters will respond to the growing extremism of the GOP. Of course, it's the economy, stupid, and Democrats will be unjustly punished, wrongly held accountable for a historic economic crisis that owes far more to Republican policy (under Bush, specifically, but begun much earlier) than to Democratic action since Obama won the White House. Indeed, if anything, Democratic action, such as the stimulus package and the bank bailout, made the crisis far less bad than it otherwise would have been -- not that voters appreciate this.

But the election season thus far has been dominated by the bases of the two parties, by those more committed voters who identify with one party or the other, are deeply partisan, and turn out to vote in primaries. The rest of the electorate, a large majority of it, just hasn't been paying much attention and is only now, I suspect, with summer over, beginning to think about the options before it. These are voters who may identify as Republican or Democratic but who are less politically engaged than the partisans or, if engaged, less committed to one or the other, voters who don't just vote the party line no matter what. Many of these are independents, and many are turned off by the partisan extremism they see in Washington. Yes, it may be true that some of them prefer Boehner to Pelosi, but if anything their preferences are yet to be fully formed. And when in the coming weeks they start paying attention, when they start thinking about the issues that matter to them and how they'll vote, I suspect they -- many of them -- will look upon the state of the Republican Party with disgust.

What will help is that Obama, a great campaigner, will be on the campaign trail stumping for Democrats and articulating as only he can the heart of the matter of November's midterms, defending his and the Democrats' record against Republican attacks and smears and pushing back against Republican politics and policy. And these voters, those who have yet to make up their mind, those who right now lack the enthusiasm to get out and try to make a difference, will be paying attention.

This is not to say that the Democrats are perfect. Far from it. But they have a solid record to run on even in a time of grave economic uncertainty and widespread popular fear and frustration: a stimulus package that stabilized the economy and put it on the road to recovery, health-care reform that will extend choice and coverage to millions while taking power away from the profit-driven insurance industry, Wall Street reform that will block counter relentless greed and hold insiders accountable, tax policy that focuses on relieving the burden on the middle class instead of benefitting the rich.

Right now, sure, there haven't been many "defectors." But this could very well change once the campaign really heats up. When voters look at the two parties and see that the Republican Party has effectively been taken over by the likes of Sharron Angle in Nevada, Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Rand Paul in Kentucky, to name but four of the more widely-known extremists, many of them may very well run the other way.

The consequences for the GOP could indeed be more severe in 2012 and beyond, but it's awfully short-sighted of Brooks -- who to his credit sees that Tea Party conservatism is dominated by "a narcissistic sense of victimization, an egomaniacal belief in one's own rightness and purity, a willingness to distort the truth so that every conflict becomes a contest of pure good versus pure evil" -- not to see (or at least not to admit) that a good deal can happen between now and November.

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