When Kentucky US Senate candidate Rand Paul said that if elected he would seek to join forces with Tea Party-minded senators like Jim DeMint (SC), and possibly current senate candidates like Mike Lee of Utah and Sharron Angle of Nevada, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) told the Washington Post, “We don’t need a lot of Jim DeMint disciples.” Warning of any such possible bloc of rogue Republican senators, Lott added “As soon as they get here, we need to co-opt them.”
You have to give Lott credit for his honesty. The long established process of becoming a respected Republican on Capitol Hill is for politicians to mouth conservative rhetoric in order to get elected, and then to advance their careers by supporting every bit of big government legislation favored by their party. If some honest conservative dared to criticize such behavior, talk radio and the right-wing media would always have that Republican’s back, pointing out that the Democrats were always worse, helping to insure that politician’s re-election. This scenario describes Lott’s entire career and it should be no surprise that he now works as a Capitol Hill lobbyist. Lott’s common brand of Republicanism, always masquerading as “conservatism,” reached new heights during the George W. Bush years and survives today as the rump of the Republican Party—members of which still offer no apologies for their past behavior.
When Tea Partiers now go after Republicans like Senator Bob Bennett, or give Senator Lindsey Graham holy hell at a town hall, mainstream pundits like to call the movement too “extreme” while scratching their heads and asking, “but aren’t these ‘conservative Republicans ?” Answer: No. They never were, and this is a truth grassroots conservatives finally seem to be waking up to.
When Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) announced she was forming a Tea Party Caucus in the House this week, Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) was asked if he was a member, and replied with his best Sarah Palin impression, “you betcha!” But what kind of conservative, exactly, is Pence? What kind of conservatives are Rep. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) or Rep. John Cornyn (R-TX), just to name three names already associated, either implicitly or explicitly, with the Tea Party Caucus? Libertarian guru Lew Rockwell makes a good point, “Thanks to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews tonight, I was able to see the predators John Cornyn, Jeff Sessions, and Mike Pence refuse to say what they would cut from the federal budget. They blabbed, but refused to name one program to diminish. That is because the Republicans are as bad as the Democrats—they want a massive state to control and loot for them, too. They no more believe in smaller government than the non-NASA man in the moon. In power, the Republicans have always been terrible.”
And indeed they have. Is Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus a genuine manifestation of that movement’s power and influence, something that could possibly—and finally—bear conservative fruit? Or is it an attempt to do what Lott said must be done to any honest conservative who dares step foot on Capitol Hill, or as he put it “we need to co-opt them.” On one hand, Bachmann’s group forces Republicans who like to talk a good Tea Party game to explicitly endorse the movement, which could prove a testament to their conservative seriousness. On the other hand, men like Pence, Sessions and Cornyn could simply be just like Trent Lott—eager to court voters using the right-wing language of their day, in this case the Tea Party—but not so eager to carry out any actual conservative agenda. As late as 1996, a moderate GOP presidential candidate like Bob Dole openly called for the abolishment of the Department of Education at every campaign stop, something that was also a part of the official Republican platform. Today, supposedly conservative Republicans like Pence, Sessions and Cornyn cannot even come up with a single thing they would cut out of the federal budget while appearing on a liberal talk show, and a budget much larger than it was in 1996, at that. Is Chris Matthews that intimidating? Or are such “conservatives” not that serious?
It is worth noting that although candidate Rand Paul, a serious conservative by any measure, came up with the idea of a Tea Party Caucus in the Senate, his father, Congressman Ron Paul—the most serious conservative on Capitol Hill—has yet to join Bachmann’s group.
The effectiveness of the Tea Party is due in large part to the fact that it is not a creation of Washington, but to the extent that it is successful it might have to make inroads into the belly of the beast, whether by simply holding politicians’ feet to the fire, or even some politician’s going the full route of beginning to speak in its name. Time will tell, and Bachmann’s caucus could very well be a healthy and necessary reflection of the movement’s success—or it could be the Republican Party successfully co-opting another conservative movement. Conservatives should always welcome any new productive possibilities or useful allies. They should also remain vigilant.