In the war between the Republican Establishment and the Tea Party, it's hard for lefties to know which side to take. Should I be rooting for the marginally less conservative wing of the GOP? Or hope that the Tea Party gains power and totally discredits itself?
Last week North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, the Republican establishment choice, defeated a passel of Tea Party nutters to win the GOP primary with enough votes to avoid a run-off. Those disappointed by this result included, not just those Tea Party nutters, but also incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who paid for ads denouncing Tillis as insufficiently conservative, hoping to influence GOP primary voters. Hagan was gambling that a Tea Party candidate would alienate all the voters in the state who were not right-wing loons, letting her cruise to victory like Claire McCaskill did before her.
So as a guy who generally votes Democratic, I should theoretically be on Hagan's side here, right? I don't want the Democrats to lose the Senate (especially since Ginsburg and Breyer seem determined not to retire). I was pleased when Todd Akin and other Tea Party idiots started babbling about rape, allowing various Democratic candidates who should have been beatable to win and retain control of the upper chamber in 2012.
There's no doubt the Tea Party has been a boon to partisan Democrats. And given that, there's a temptation to just cheer the Tea Party on wherever and whenever it raises its addled, mean-spirited pate. Kentucky Tea Party challenger Matt Bevin telling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to "Be a man [and] run on his record"—that's quality theater! And if Bevin were actually to beat McConnell, poobah of the filibuster, delay, obfuscation and hypocrisy? How could I not see that as a lovely thing?
Yet, for all my delight at the discomfiture of McConnell and his likeminded establishment jowly septuagenarians, I can't help but feel that it's a good thing that Tillis won, and that the Tea Party in general is struggling more this cycle than the last one.
This has little to do with ideology per se. As Paul Waldman points out, there isn't really much of a rift between the Tea Party and the Republicans on conservative principles. All Republicans pretty much agree: don't raise taxes, abortion is bad, Obamacare is evil, and don't raise taxes. As Waldman says, the real difference is tactical. Establishment Republicans think you should make deals to get what you want if you have to; they also think that shutting down the government for no reason is a bad idea. Tea Partiers, on the other hand, think that any compromise is evil and that they can repeal Obamacare by holding their breath until the legislation fairy takes pity on them and gives them everything they want. Establishment Republicans have a vague interest in advancing a conservative agenda; Tea Party Republicans mostly want to stay pure—which in practice means never passing any legislation ever, since once you've passed it, someone can criticize it for not being sufficiently conservative.
I don't actually want conservative legislation passed, so you'd think I'd cheer the Tea Party's utter incompetence. The problem, though, is that legislative incompetence is really dangerous. It was nice that George W. Bush torpedoed the reputation of the Republican Party. But to get there he had to stumble through Iraq and Katrina, a process that involved pain, suffering, untold mountains of cash, and a lot of dead bodies. Similarly, the Tea Party shutting down the government last year cost billions of dollars, and disrupted the lives of some 800,000 government workers. There is some pleasure in watching the GOP thrash itself into a pretzel so it can kick itself in the balls, but that pleasure really is not worth the price tag.
We've got a two-party system in the U.S., and the parties are only getting stronger. That means both parties are really important, and are going to be in position to wield a lot of power, at every level of government. Having one insane party is not good for anyone, whether they’re Democrats, Republicans, or passersby. That's why Tea Party candidate Ben Sasse's victory in Nebraska is especially depressing, since it’s likely he'll go on to enter the Senate and do his best to make that body even more dysfunctional. I have no love for Establishment Republicans, but the sooner they can get the party back into some semblance of normalcy, the better off the country will be.
—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu