A Good Night for the White House

There hasn’t been much to cheer up the White House in recent weeks but last night’s Tea Party upset in the GOP Senate primary in Delaware must have prompted some pretty big smiles in the West Wing. “Tea Party Scores Big,” was the Washington Post headline this morning. But the scoring is at the cost of the GOP and the headline could easily have been instead – “Big Night for the White House.”

Tea Party activists won’t feel that way. From their perspective they are shaking up politics and disproving Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s dismissive interpretation of the Tea Party as just “Asrto-turf “ and “not really a grass-roots movement.” As Tea Party victor Christine O’Donnell said last night after her defeat of veteran GOP congressman Mike Castle, this is “no more politics as usual.”

Add O’Donnell’s stunning victory to the string of embarrassments the Tea Party has been handing out to the Republican establishment this year, from Alaska with Joe Miller’s trouncing of Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a primary to last spring’s Tea Party overturning of Sen. Robert Bennett at the Utah Republican state convention, and it hard for the activists to think anything but that history is with them.

Certainly there are pollsters and commentators eager to confirm that view. Writing in the Washington Examiner, pollster Scott Rasmussen and political consultant Douglas Schoen launch on a breathless paean to the Tea Party’s importance, arguing that the movement is “demonstrating a level of activism and enthusiasm that is both unprecedented and arguably unique in recent American political history.”

While they are right to castigate the press for dismissing the movement earlier this year, and while they are surely correct in arguing that the Tea Party has been “one of the most derided and minimized and, frankly, most disrespected movements in American history,” I am not so convinced that the Tea Party movement is that different from the third-party challenge of Ross Perot back in 1992.

Many of the things claimed for the Tea Party were claimed also for the Perot movement – one as inchoate  as the Tea Party. It was going to shake up politics and repaint the political landscape permanently. The activists were highly active and incredibly enthusiastic and glowing with the self-righteous  belief that their time had come. And what did it in practice do? Act as a major factor in the defeat of George Bush and the election of Bill Clinton.

And that is exactly what the Tea Party is likely to achieve. Their victories are not over the Democrats, supposedly their real foes. Their triumphs are over party allies and each time they win they are underscoring the civil war that continues to rage within the GOP, thereby weakening Republican prospects come November.

O’Donnell inadvertently revealed that when she said last night in her victory speech that, “This is more of a cause than a campaign.” Causes tend not to do too well when it comes to general and congressional elections and they can inflict incredible harm on the party they are trying to capture. The anti-war movement did no favors to the Democrats and succeeded in assisting Richard Nixon to victory in 1968. The ugly anger of the Buchanan Brigades and their challenge to Bush in the 1992 primaries only added to the hurdles the incumbent president had to try to jump.

Compare the poll numbers Rasmussen and Schoen outline in their article. One of their surveys finds nearly one quarter (24 percent) of the electorate self-identified as being members in the Tea Party movement. That’s about what the Perot movement was polling in the summer of 1992.

Admittedly, the Perot movement was taking votes and support away from the GOP; Tea Party activists claim they will bring votes to the Republicans come November. But is this really true? Most Tea Party activists vote GOP when push comes to shove and for every new vote they may attract to a Republican candidate, they will turn off an independent voter or centrist who could have been enticed to vote GOP.

Take a look at what happened to John McCain’s presidential prospects after Sarah Palin joined the ticket. Yes, he got an opinion poll jump for a few days after his pick but once the broader electorate got to know Palin more, his numbers plummeted.  She was meant to reflect McCain’s “change credentials” and help him appeal to urban women. In fact, her selection was a turning point in the campaign for the Democrats and along with the Republican crack-up was a determining factor in his win.

Senior Republicans know this. Last night, the silence from GOP Sen. John Cornyn, the NRSC chairman, who issued no statement congratulating O’Donnell, was telling. O’Donnell’s win in Democrat-tilted Delaware has jeopardized the chance of the GOP in winning the Senate seat there in the fall. She is too conservative for the state and the Tea Party is too conservative for a lot of the electorate.

Earlier this week I suggested that President Obama would be hard pushed to reverse the GOP tide. Last night he might have found a new ally in the Tea Party. Yup, it was a good night for the White House.