I think I may have been misunderstood in some of my recent posts calling Republicans to account for having favored health insurance mandates and the Medicare prescription drug benefit. It's true that I don't believe that Republican politicians are trustworthy on such matters. Left to their own devices they'll fight a statist measure by Democrats by offering something only somewhat less statist. Give them control of the White House and both houses of Congress and they'll run up a massive deficit, piling earmark upon earmark, and then complain when Democrats do the same thing.
But I recognize that, as weak-willed as they tend to be, they're our best hope, the only alternative being to support some third party. This, of course, would be a disaster, splitting the conservative vote and guaranteeing Democrat control for the foreseeable future. And surely it is to the credit of the GOP that every single member remained firm in the fight over the health care boondoggle. This is not the Republicans' customary behavior; at the very least one might have expected some of the usual suspects (Snowe, Collins, Voinovich) to break ranks.
That this didn't occur has everything to do with the rise of the Tea Party Movement. This is something almost entirely new to American politics, at least at the national level--a grassroots campaign of conservatism. The Democrats never seem to have a problem finding a crowd to support some new federal entitlement; in many cases it's a matter of rounding up a bunch of college students, or visiting the local unemployment office. For Republicans it was always different. As P.J. O'Rourke put it, "conservatives have jobs."
The Tea Partiers are having an effect on the GOP similar to that of a stiff drink. They're making them defiant, feisty, unwilling to sacrifice principle for some short-term face-saving advantage. This is why the Tea Parties are such a refreshing development. It also explains why the left is apoplectic in its denunciation of them. No accusation, it seems, is too shrill. (I refuse to include a link to the infamous Frank Rich editorial from this past weekend, as I have no desire to promote the spread of his poison.) Ugly incidents are provoked or, if necessary, invented out of whole cloth. Democrats want back their old, pliable Republican Party--the one of Bob Dole, or before him Everett Dirksen and Charlie Halleck, the kind that could broker a backroom deal that succeeded only in making them seem like good losers. They understand that their GOP will not return as long as the Tea Party Movement remains; therefore it must be destroyed at all costs.
We must prevent that from happening, and to do this the Republican Party and the Tea Partiers need to stand together. Without the GOP's votes in the House and Senate, the Tea Parties are politically irrelevant. But without the Tea Parties, congressional Republicans will most likely revert to form. How long would it be before they stopped denouncing the health care plan and decide that it's acceptable, so long as it's controlled by Republicans (see Education, Department of)? What this means, though, is that conservative intellectuals need to get behind the movement. There is an understandable reluctance on our part to do so. After all, we come from the tradition of Edmund Burke, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and Robert A. Taft, one that has long viewed politics as a gentlemen's game and distrusted mass action. Many of us also differ from the Tea Partiers in matters of policy; personally, I do not share their enthusiasm for Sarah Palin, and I believe more than they in things like free trade and separation of church and state. We need to get past this; the differences are too minor, and the stakes are too high, for us to remain in the ivory tower. The next couple of election cycles may be our last chance to save the Republic. We cannot afford to remain aloof.