Tea Party to take over

Most political analysts have been speculating over the imminent death of the Democratic Party. They cite the similarities to 1994, when Whitewater, Paula Jones and the contentious six-month battle over healthcare had dragged the popularity of the Democratic president and his party to historic lows — on a par with the Republicans for the first time since 1962.

Under the leadership of Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Republicans had discovered that they gained points by attacking the president and his programs. Voters perceived that Republicans had something to offer, and Democrats did little to counter that perception. They were fighting a defensive battle, trying to argue things were not as bad as they seemed.

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Today’s Republican Party does not seem to be able to pull that off. The ranting about President Barack Obama’s secret socialist agenda and the rise of spokesmen like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck — obvious ideologues appealing to a narrow segment of the party — have served to define the party as right-wing. What started as a tax protest, the Tea Party, seems to be evolving into a legitimate movement within the party, with well-organized and -financed candidates challenging mainstream Republicans in primary races around the country.

Just this past week, two political analysts have weighed in with differing historical views about the state of the parties — but come largely to the same conclusion. Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg writes in the New Republic about the panic he began to feel looking at the numbers in the spring of 1994.

He convened a meeting of top political scientists to divine what the diverging lines of support for Republicans and Democrats meant. Their conclusion was a loss of 15 to 18 seats — a dire scenario, but nothing quite like what actually happened, which was a loss of 54 House seats and eight in the Senate. At the time, the president’s approval rating held at 50 percent. Following the disastrous defeat of his crime bill by his own party in the House, his positive numbers had fallen to 39 percent.

Are we in the same situation today? Greenberg thinks not. “Republicans have remained amazingly unredeemed,” he says. Unlike Gingrich and Dole, who gained stature with every battle, Republicans today look like a cult.

Ken Feltman surprisingly shares this view, comparing where the party is today to the Whigs in the 1850s. More recently, he recalls the “loyalty test” votes of Tom DeLay that affirmed leadership’s positions without regard for the needs of moderate constituents. He cites Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) resigning because DeLay had no idea what it took for a Republican to win in Buffalo. Moderates need not apply.

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In reading Feltman’s newsletter,  Radnor Reports, I was reminded of a paper I wrote in college on how F. Clifton White and his cohorts seized control of the Republican Party from the “Rockefeller Republicans” and nominated Barry Goldwater for president. Radnor believes the pattern will repeat. The Tea Partiers will take over more party positions now held by the old guard. “Some of those Tea Partiers will be kooky, others will be single-issue ideologues. A few will be anti-immigrant, a smattering will be paranoid. Others will be very like the Republicans they beat.”

Whether the movement will be a short-lived adjustment in GOP philosophy or a wholesale shifting of the political foundation in this country will take some time to sort out. But the message from two very political observers from opposite ends of the spectrum is that change is coming. And it may not be the change many suspect.

If Obama is able to make the case that he and the Democrats are making a better life for real people while Republicans simply want to stop any change that affects the status quo, they may be able to weave a positive economic narrative. Communicating that message just might trigger the same kind of realignment that eventually created the Republican Party some 160 years ago.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com