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That was the talk on the Sunday shows and in the blogosphere last week. The conservative “establishment” had backed Mike Castle in the Delaware Republican senatorial primary over the “tea party” favorite, Christine O’Donnell. O’Donnell won, but only after being wounded by the likes of Karl Rove, Charles Krauthammer, and the folks at The Weekly Standard and my own stomping ground, National Review.
The argument got heated. O’Donnell’s most ardent supporters imbued all opposition to her with deep ideological significance, even though most of Castle’s nominal supporters were far to Castle’s right and more ideologically simpatico with O’Donnell. They backed Castle on the tactical grounds that he was a shoo-in to win the general election, which would give the GOP another Senate seat.
But Delaware’s Republican primary voters saw it a different way. They have had enough with “RINOs”–“Republicans in Name Only.” The Limbaugh Law replaced the William F. Buckley Rule. The latter held that conservatives should vote for the most rightward electable candidate. The Limbaugh Law says that when the country is in open revolt against liberalism and Republicans are riding an election wave, you should vote conservative every time.
Time will tell which side will lose that debate, but one thing is already clear: The tea parties won (thank goodness).
It takes two to tango, and it takes two to fight a civil war. What seems lost on a remarkably diverse group of observers and political combatants, on the left and the right, is that there are no worthy Republican opponents to the tea parties.
Among the Republican leadership or the “conservative establishment,” you will not find a single full-throated critic of the tea parties.
To borrow from an old Jim Croce song, the message out of the primaries is this: You don’t tug on Superman’s cape; you don’t spit into the wind; you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger; and you don’t mess around with the tea parties.
If the spat over the Delaware primary were truly a sign of an ideological civil war or power struggle, you would expect the “establishment” to oppose tea-party types in other races too. That hasn’t happened.
Both the GOP leadership and the major conservative outlets enthusiastically support Marco Rubio in Florida, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Sharron Angle in Nevada (after some initial concerns), and Joe Miller in Alaska. Even John McCain–an exemplary RINO to many on the right–won not by vilifying the tea parties but by claiming to join them, an approach more sincerely and consistently followed by other GOP candidates across the country.
Meanwhile, Rubio and Toomey chased moderates like Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter clear out of the Republican party. And now Miller has pretty much done the same with Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, who in a sad attempt to cling to power has announced that she will run as a write-in candidate come November. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, immediately moved to excommunicate Murkowski, stripping her of her leadership position.
In all three cases the “establishment” has said to the moderates, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And how have they responded to the allegedly barbaric, uncouth, tea-fueled hordes storming the Beltway castle? “Lower the drawbridge!”
“A political reporter,” Washington Post columnist David S. Broder once correctly observed, “is essentially a fight promoter.” Add in the media’s dismay over President Obama’s fall from heaven, and it’s no wonder the journalistic establishment would push the civil-war angle.
And, of course, it’s no surprise that the left would be eager for news of conservative infighting and disarray. They have convinced themselves that the rest of America dislikes the tea parties as much as they do. The problem is that the facts point the other way. Independents not only dislike the Democrats more than the Republicans, they are becoming increasingly tea-partyish themselves.
The most interesting part of all this is that many pro-tea-party types on the right mistook this for a civil war, too. They are itching to sweep Washington clean, and they will brook no opposition. Indeed, what’s remarkable is that there haven’t been more Delaware-style brawls.
Regardless, the tea-party gale has now swept through the GOP. The establishment’s sails are all pointed in the same direction, and all that stands between the tea parties and victory in November is the Democrats, with no chance for a Republican civil war to save them.
Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.
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