The Right Opinion

Tea Party to the Rescue

By Peggy Noonan · Oct. 23, 2010

Two central facts give shape to the historic 2010 election. The first is not understood by Republicans, and the second not admitted by Democrats.

The first: the tea party is not a “threat” to the Republican Party, the tea party saved the Republican Party. In a broad sense, the tea party rescued it from being the fat, unhappy, querulous creature it had become, a party that didn’t remember anymore why it existed, or what its historical purpose was. The tea party, with its energy and earnestness, restored the GOP to itself.

In a practical sense, the tea party saved the Republican Party in this cycle by not going third-party. It could have. The broadly based, locally autonomous movement seems to have made a rolling decision, group by group, to take part in Republican primaries and back Republican hopefuls. (According to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, four million more Republicans voted in primaries this year than Democrats, the GOP’s highest such turnout since 1970. I wonder who those people were?)

Because of this, because they did not go third-party, Nov. 2 is not going to be a disaster for the Republicans, but a triumph.

The tea party did something the Republican establishment was incapable of doing: It got the party out from under George W. Bush. The tea party rejected his administration’s spending, overreach and immigration proposals, among other items, and has become only too willing to say so. In doing this, the tea party allowed the Republican establishment itself to get out from under Mr. Bush: “We had to, boss, it was a political necessity!” They released the GOP establishment from its shame cringe.

And they not only freed the Washington establishment, they woke it up. That establishment, composed largely of 50- to 75-year-olds who came to Washington during the Reagan era in a great rush of idealism, in many cases stayed on, as they say, not to do good but to do well. They populated a conservative infrastructure that barely existed when Reagan was coming up: the think tanks and PR groups, the media outlets and governmental organizations. They did not do what conservatives are supposed to do, which is finish their patriotic work and go home, taking the knowledge and sophistication derived from Washington and applying it to local problems. (This accounts in part for the esteem in which former Bush budget chief and current Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is held. He went home.)

The GOP establishment stayed, and one way or another lived off government, breathed in its ways and came to know—learned all too well!—the limits of what is possible and passable. Part of the social and cultural reality behind the tea party-GOP establishment split has been the sheer fact that tea partiers live in non-D.C. America. The establishment came from America, but hasn’t lived there in a long time.

I know and respect some of the establishmentarians, but after dinner, on the third glass of wine, when they get misty-eyed about Reagan and the old days, they are not, I think, weeping for him and what he did but for themselves and who they were. Back when they were new and believed in something.

Finally, the tea party stiffened the GOP’s spine by forcing it to recognize what it had not actually noticed, that we are a nation in crisis. The tea party famously has no party chiefs and no conventions but it does have a theme—stop the spending, stop the sloth, incompetence and unneeded regulation—and has lent it to the GOP.

Actually, Maureen “Moe” Tucker, former drummer of the Velvet Underground, has done the best job ever of explaining where the tea party stands and why it stands there. She also suggests the breadth and variety of the movement. In an interview this week in St. Louis’s Riverfront Times, Ms. Tucker said she’d never been particularly political but grew alarmed by the direction the country was taking. In the summer of 2009, she went to a tea-party rally in southern Georgia. A chance man-on-the-street interview became a YouTube sensation. No one on the left could believe this intelligent rally-goer was the former drummer of the 1960s breakthrough band; no one on the left understood that an artist could be a tea partier. Because that’s so not cool, and the Velvet Underground was cool.

Ms. Tucker, in the interview, ran through the misconceptions people have about tea partiers: “that they’re all racists, they’re all religious nuts, they’re all uninformed, they’re all stupid, they want no taxes at all and no regulations whatsoever.” These stereotypes, she observed, are encouraged by Democrats to keep their base “on their side.” But she is not a stereotype: “Anyone who thinks I’m crazy about Sarah Palin, Bush, etc., has made quite the presumption. I have voted Democrat all my life, until I started listening to what Obama was promising and started wondering how the hell will this utopian dream be paid for?”

There is also this week a striking essay by Fareed Zakaria, no tea partier he, in Time magazine. He unknowingly touched on part of the reason for the tea party. Mr. Zakaria, born and raised in India, got his first sense of America’s vitality, outsized ways, glamour and crazy high-spiritedness as a young boy in the late 1970s watching bootlegged videotapes of “Dallas.” What a country! His own land, in comparison, seemed sleepy, hidebound. Now when he travels to India, “it’s as if the world has been turned upside down. Indians are brimming with hope and faith in the future. After centuries of stagnation, their economy is on the move, fueling animal spirits and ambition. The whole country feels as if it has been unlocked.” Meanwhile the mood in the U.S. seems glum, dispirited. “The middle class, in particular, feels under assault.” Sixty-three percent of Americans say they do not think they will be able to maintain their current standard of living. “The can-do country is convinced that it can’t.”

All true. And yet. We may be witnessing a new political dynamism. The Tea Party’s rise reflects anything but fatalism, and maybe even a new high-spiritedness. After all, they’re only two years old and they just saved a political party and woke up an elephant.

The second fact of 2010 is understood by Republicans but not admitted by Democrats. It is that this is a fully nationalized election, and at its center it is about one thing: Barack Obama.

It is not, broadly, about the strengths or weaknesses of various local candidates, about constituent services or seniority, although these elements will be at play in some outcomes, Barney Frank’s race likely being one. But it is significant that this year Mr. Frank is in the race of his life, and this week on TV he did not portray the finger-drumming smugness and impatience with your foolishness he usually displays on talk shows. He looked pale and mildly concussed, like someone who just found out that liberals die, too.

This election is about one man, Barack Obama, who fairly or not represents the following: the status quo, Washington, leftism, Nancy Pelosi, Fannie and Freddie, and deficits in trillions, not billions.

Everyone who votes is going to be pretty much voting yay or nay on all of that. And nothing can change that story line now.