So, there are going to be two responses to President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday. One, the official Republican Party response, will be delivered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), also known (at least to this blogger) as the only Republican with a strong chance to win the presidency in 2016.
The second response could foreshadow the reason why Rubio might not be the next president. That response, on behalf of the supposedly defanged and doomed-to-irrelevancy Tea Party, will be given by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).
Let’s put aside, for a moment, this question: How is it that the opposition gets to make two televised responses to the president’s remarks on the State of the Union? And instead, let us consider what these dueling rebuttals say about the state of the opposition.
In short, there is such a cleavage, at this point, between establishment Republicans and the conservapopulists, that they can’t even get together on a single response to a president that they all despise. This does not bode well for their prospects for unity in upcoming elections.
One of the things that worked against the Republicans in 2012 was the fact that the Kamikaze wing of the party—disaffected Tea Partiers and other assorted fringe kooks— couldn’t get behind Mitt Romney until his nomination became inevitable. One after another, the assembled collection of third-rate goofballs (such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum) rose to challenge him and finally succumbed to his monetary and institutional advantages. But the months-long spectacle severely damaged the party’s brand among moderate voters and ultimately, it could be argued, helped sink Romney’s chances by forcing him to pander to the wingnuts, thereby losing him the middle—and the election.
The establishment is now trying to fight back, but having set this mess in motion, the Republican leadership is now finding out how difficult it is to put the goofpaste back into the tube. That’s why the Republicans will have dueling rebuttals tomorrow night.
The bottom line is this: the fact that Sen. Paul is giving a Tea Party speech is a clear signal that the conservapopulists are not going to go gently into the good night which Karl Rove and his colleagues have all planned out for them. You see, Rove and other intelligent Republicans have learned the lesson of the 2012 election—that the spectacle of a Republican Party full of nutballs like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock scared the crap out of centrist voters and drove them, grudgingly, into the arms of the Democrats.
But the Tea Party folks don’t share that view.
In Ayn Rand Paul World, Mitt Romney and the Republicans lost in 2012 because they weren’t conservative enough, and heroes such as Akin and Mourdock were viciously slandered and taken down by the evil liberal, “lamestream” media.
The reason the Tea Party types believe this ridiculous tripe—although most objective observers see it, rightly, as delusional—is because, for the most part, Tea Partiers only talk politics with other Tea Partiers. They reinforce to each other their collective delusion that a majority of Americans think the same way they do—and because they don’t talk very much with anyone who doesn’t think that way, they’re shocked when the electorate rejects their ideas, and they assume that the Democrats must have stolen the election.
The Republican Party has created quite the dilemma for itself. Having invited the kook wing into the party, in a grab for the low-hanging fruit of its votes, the Republican Party has alienated moderates and made itself dependent on the Tea Party. Having seen moderates alienated by the Tea Party, the Republicans can’t compete if the Tea Partiers stay on the sideline. But without the middle, which the Tea Party has alienated, the Republicans also cannot win.
The smarter move, better in the long term, is to kick the Tea Party out of the tent and try to get some moderates back into it. It’s a far better growth strategy, as Rove and other establishment Republicans clearly recognize. But the Tea Party isn’t going along with the plan. It not only likes being inside the tent—it believes it built the tent, with its one-time electoral triumph in 2010, and it is entitled not just to be inside the tent but to run it.
I believe it was Lyndon Johnson who said that it was better to have a troublesome faction inside the tent, pissing out, than to have it outside the tent, pissing in. The trouble for the Republicans is that the Tea Party, wild and undisciplined, is inside the tent and pissing everywhere—outward onto moderate voters, and inward all over establishment Republicans who would actually like to win another election in their lifetimes. The GOP has created a monster that it can no longer control, and it is now in the unenviable position where it loses if the Tea Party stays or leaves.
And if the Republican Party can’t get control of this situation, tomorrow night’s Rubio-Paul split could be an ominous preview of things to come—perhaps a divisive GOP presidential primary in 2016, or maybe even a shattering of the party that could see both men in the general election, splitting conservative votes, and both getting squashed by the Democratic nominee, a la 1912. Get your popcorn ready.