The Coming Republican Rebellion Against The Tea Party, And How It Could Backfire

CREDIT: Shutterstock
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Revolt is the all the rage among conservative intellectuals. Fed-up folks like David Frum and Reihan Salam want someone inside the party to take on the Tea Partiers responsible for the current standoff. “Responsible Republicans have to act. They have to organize and mobilize,” Frum cries out. Salam nods, saying “the Republicans profiting from undermining their colleagues need to pay a price for having done so.”

The thing is, a version of that is already happening. I’m just not sure it’ll excise the rot Frum and Salam have sniffed out.

One such plan, just proposed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), makes no sense. The idea is to gather a bloc of 12 moderate Republicans who won’t vote for any bill absent the support of 208 other Republicans. Unless you assume that 90 percent of House Republicans are raring to give Obama a clean continuing resolution and debt ceiling raise, but are just waiting for Nunes’ say-so, it’s unclear what this strategem is supposed to accomplish.

A more serious sort of “Responsible Republican” action kicked off two days ago, when businessman Brian Ellis announced his intent to primary Tea Party favorite Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI). Amash is a Tea Party libertarian who voted against the Ryan budget because it didn’t cut spending fast enough, who ranks (on one metric) as one of the House Republicans most responsible for the shutdown.


Ellis’ challenge appears to be the first in a line of business-funded challenges to Tea Party candidates. “Similar efforts are underway in at least three other districts,” the Washington Post reports, “one in the moneyed Detroit suburbs and the others in North Carolina and Tennessee.” Business leaders, infuriated by the damage being done to the economy, are openly declaring war on the Tea Party in the pages of (heavens to betsy!) The New York Times.

Business certainly has the money to put up real challenges to Tea Partiers. Seems just like what Salam and Frum, no?

Hold up. TPM’s Daniel Strauss reports that Ellis is hitting Amash from the Tea Party right. Amash’s sins are not radicalism, but being too accommodating on taxes, abortion, and the Keystone Pipeline. Comically, Ellis twists Amash’s purist vote against the Ryan budget to suggest the libertarian “has turned his back on our conservative principles.”

Ellis’ right-flanking maneuver points to something critically important about the race: whoever wins will be responsible to the same polarized, extreme primary electorate. While business contributions can help Ellis beat Amash, they’re (according to a deep body of political science and economics research) unlikely to buy votes on actual legislation. Ellis will vote for what he wants and what his constituents want, which sounds every bit as Tea Party-esque as what Amash wants.

The Ellis-Amash race is an example of the broader problem with the business community’s approach. The roots of Republican radicalism are structural, not unlucky byproducts of the 2010 election. The party’s elites and base have been turned to the right by a decade of demographic trends that have made the GOP increasingly more Southern and more conservative. Salam (rightly, to my mind) calls this a “death spiral:” the party’s purity fetish means that a number of conservative voters who might be loyal to a more ideologically flexible party are driven out, making the party both increasingly coherent and decreasingly viable on the national level.


This isn’t a problem that can be solved by primarying a few stray Tea Partiers and replacing them with equally conservative candidates. To break the structural trap, the party will need to pull in a more moderate base. You need rank-and-file Republicans willing to depose candidates over dangerous radicalism, not insufficient purity. That’s the only way to end the downward cycle wherein the base elects increasingly radical elites who in turn alienate non-radicals from the party.

A real shift in policy direction at the elite level could do the trick, if it presented an ideology that appeals to a wider swath of voters than the current GOP base. Both Frum and Salam respectively have well-developed visions for the Republican Party, either one of which would be vastly preferable to the current. But getting to either of those from here will take much more than business replacing Tea Partiers with talkalike empty suits.

But here’s the real irony of the Amash-Ellis example: Amash has genuinely new ideas. He’s a civil libertarian and non-interventionist who led the charge against both NSA spying and the proposed Syria intervention. He believes the “real threat to traditional marriage & religious liberty is government, not gay couples who love each other & want to spend lives together.” He is by far the most principled libertarian in Congress.

These sorts of views, consistently pursued, could potentially bring voters into the GOP who would vote against Tea Party extremists (who, with some exceptions, tend to have down-the-line hardline conservative policy positions). Business primarying out heterodox voices like Amash might hurt, not help, the cause of Republican reform.