The Right Opinion

Three Questions for the Tea Party

By Michael Gerson · Aug. 25, 2010

WASHINGTON – So the “summer of recovery” swelters on, with Democrats sun-blistered, pestered by bottle flies, sand in their swimsuits, water in their ears. Jobless claims increase, Republicans lead the generic congressional ballot and George W. Bush is six points more popular than President Obama in “frontline” Democratic districts that are most vulnerable to a Republican takeover. Still, Democrats hug the hope that Obama is really the liberal Ronald Reagan – but without wit, humor, an explainable ideology or an effective economic plan. Other than that, the resemblance is uncanny.

Yet the Republican Party suffers its own difficulty – an untested ideology at the core of its appeal.

In the normal course of events, political movements begin as intellectual arguments, often conducted for years in serious books and journals. To study the tea party movement, future scholars will sift through the tweets of Sarah Palin. Without a history of clarifying, refining debates, Republicans need to ask three questions of candidates rising on the tea party wave:

First, do you believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional? This seems to be the unguarded view of Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck and other tea party advocates of “constitutionalism.” It reflects a conviction that the federal government only has powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution – which doesn’t mention retirement insurance or health care.

This view is logically consistent – as well as historically uninformed, morally irresponsible and politically disastrous. The Constitution, in contrast to the Articles of Confederation, granted broad power to the federal government to impose taxes and spend funds to “provide for … the general welfare” – at least if Alexander Hamilton and a number of Supreme Court rulings are to be believed. In practice, Social Security abolition would push perhaps 13 million of the elderly into destitution, blurring the line between conservative idealism and Social Darwinism.

This approach undermines a large conservative achievement. Despite early misgivings about Social Security and the Civil Rights Act, Ronald Reagan moved Republicans past Alf Landon’s resistance to the New Deal, and Barry Goldwater’s opposition to federal civil rights law, focusing instead on economic growth and national strength. A consistent “constitutionalism” would entangle Republicans in an endless, unfolding political gaffe – opposing, in moments of candor, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, the federal highway system and the desegregation of lunch counters.

A second question of tea party candidates: Do you believe that American identity is undermined by immigration? An internal debate has broken out on this issue among tea party favorites. Tom Tancredo, running for Colorado governor, raises the prospect of bombing Mecca, urges the president to return to his Kenyan “homeland” and calls Miami a “Third World country” – managing to offend people on four continents. Dick Armey of FreedomWorks appropriately criticizes Tancredo’s “harsh and uncharitable and mean-spirited attitude on the immigration issue.” But the extremes of the movement, during recent debates on birthright citizenship and the Manhattan mosque, seem intent on depicting Hispanics and Muslims as a fifth column.

There is no method more likely to create ethnic resentment and separatism than unfair suspicion. The nativist impulse is the enemy of assimilation. In a nation where minorities now comprise two-fifths of children under 18, Republicans should also understand that tolerating nativism would bring slow political asphyxiation.

Question three: Do you believe that gun rights are relevant to the health care debate? Nevada Republican U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle raised this issue by asserting that, “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies.” Far from reflecting the spirit of the Founders (who knew how to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion), the implied resort to political violence is an affectation – more foolish than frightening. But it is toxic for the GOP to be associated with the armed and juvenile.

Most Americans who identify with the tea party movement are understandably concerned about the size and reach of government. Their enthusiasm is a clear Republican advantage. But tea party populism is just as clearly incompatible with some conservative and Republican beliefs. It is at odds with Abraham Lincoln’s inclusive tone and his conviction that government policies could empower individuals. It is inconsistent with religious teaching on government’s responsibility to seek the common good and to care for the weak. It does not reflect a Burkean suspicion of radical social change.

The Democratic political nightmare is now obvious and overwhelming. The Republican challenge is different: building a majority on an unstable, slightly cracked foundation.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group