Is the "Tea Party" Rewriting the Rules for How Republicans Run for President?
September 17, 2010
The playbook for winning the Republican presidential nomination begins with a set of inviolable rules: Start early, raise money, build an organization and trudge across the country seeking the blessing of mayors and money men.
But in a world where the most careful plans can be rendered obsolete by a Sarah Palin tweet (see: Primary, Delaware), many in the party have begun to question whether those old, pre-“tea party” rules still apply.
So as the would-be 2012 GOP presidential candidates are salivating at what they see as President Barack Obama’s growing vulnerabilities, they are also reassessing their assumptions about what it will take to win.
“The only two things more reactive than politicians running for president are rabbits and quail,” said strategist John Weaver, who helped re-engineer Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., from insurgent in 2000 to establishment pick in 2008.
Weaver warned, however, that “many of the people looking to run for president will take a crash course in tea party marketing 101 and will ultimately hurt themselves.”
One example of this, he said, was former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s declaration that Obama is exhibiting “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.”
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Gingrich was describing an essay he had read in Forbes magazine, suggesting that Obama’s African father – although he was absent through the future president’s childhood – might have influenced his world view.
But his comments also seemed to indulge the right-wing myths about Obama’s citizenship and conspiracy theories questioning his loyalties.
The new force within the Republican Party is contemptuous of safe, pragmatic calculations for winning swing voters and offers no forgiveness for political compromises and ideological inconsistencies. Saying you’re for smaller government, for instance, and then backing the bailout of Wall Street banks.
“There’s going to be an absolute stress on ‘I.P.’ – ideological purity,” predicted Ken Duberstein, a former Reagan White House chief of staff who is a lobbyist.
But that, he and other Republican strategists have said, could leave the center wide open – creating an opportunity for Obama and the Democrats. Or, for a moderate Republican, if the fractious tea party turns out to be a political moment instead of a movement and loses its sway over the party.
If the old moves have limited usefulness in this new environment, potential candidates for president are testing out new ones.
Instead of devoting themselves to the ritual circuit of party dinners in Iowa and New Hampshire and boasting of the big-name endorsements they have gotten back in Washington, those with their eye on 2012 have been trying to build their credibility with the insurgency.
They have bestowed their endorsements in bitter primary contests across the country, starting with tea party favorite Marco Rubio’s Senate candidacy in Florida – a challenge that not only drove Gov. Charlie Crist out of the race, but also out of the party.
Among the big names who clambered aboard Rubio’s bandwagon early on: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
But no one has been so active at the endorsement game as Palin.
In Delaware, Christine O’Donnell was still a long shot early this month when Palin gave her candidacy a jolt by passing along a conservative radio host’s Twitter post urging that O’Donnell’s election “must be a major focus for us all.”
Palin made her endorsement of O’Donnell official a day later, when she called into Sean Hannity’s conservative radio talk show.
Tea party activists had also fixed their attention on the race – and spent more than $250,000 on O’Donnell’s behalf. She wound up wrecking the GOP establishment’s game plan, upsetting moderate Rep. Michael Castle, who had been a favorite to win in November.
But if there are any hard feelings, you won’t find them among the crop of potential presidential contenders.
Romney, who is the closest thing the party has to a presumed front-runner, moved quickly to cast his lot with O’Donnell – along with a $5,000 contribution from his political action committee.
Some strategists think the 2012 GOP primary race might evolve into two contests.
One would be for the backing of the tea party and the forces it represents. The likely front-runner would be Palin, if she decides to run. But she would possibly get competition from Huckabee and Gingrich.
The other would be to produce a more traditional establishment alternative. Romney could have the edge in that one, although there might also be support for such figures as Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitchell Daniels Jr.
That could turn what traditionally has been an orderly coronation into a long and bitter fight for the Republican nomination – which is the way Democrats usually do it.
As the contenders try to adapt, so does the party.
“For the first time in my career, I just literally think all bets are off,” said Ralph Reed, the longtime GOP operative who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The old arguments that used to be made based on pragmatic consideration are no longer selling at the grass roots.”