When it came to light that Christine O’Donnell said in 1999 that she “dabbled into witchcraft” as a teenager, Delaware’s Republican nominee for US Senate immediately reminded me of a girl I used to date. Hungry for attention, this girl would make up all kinds of crazy stories–stuff that would put O’Donnell’s witchery to shame–and her constant nonsense was something my friends, in their concern for me and my reputation, would point out repeatedly. In retrospect, it’s amazing the amount of foolishness a man will put up with when the fool is extremely good looking.
To her admirers, O’Donnell represents the same kind of attractiveness. Not necessarily physically, though there’s that too, but ideologically O’Donnell represents a definite break from the status quo that so many Americans have come to despise. To a Tea Party accused of being crazy on a regular basis, O’Donnell’s crazy witch revelations don’t necessarily disqualify her but simply make her part of the club. The Chicago Tribune‘s Steve Chapman recognizes this peculiar, yet now well established political dynamic, writing of the various Tea Party candidates: “They didn’t get nominated because they look and sound like the popular image of a savvy, experienced, well-informed, practical-minded U.S. senator. They got nominated because they don’t. They are often accused of craziness-one MSNBC commentator said (Nevada’s Sharron) Angle ‘sounds like a mental patient.’ But to the tea partiers, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature. If a $1.4 trillion federal budget deficit represents sanity, they would prefer a candidate who escaped from the psych ward.”
Perhaps the biggest question raised concerning O’Donnell’s decade-old witch comments is the extent to which they might not be true, as she seems far more the popular cheerleader type than some homely Anne Rice fan who hangs out at the gothic shop in the mall. Regardless, O’Donnell now claims she’s all grown up, dismissing her controversial comment as mere youthful foolishness. This may be true. But it could also be true that such comments, along with other questionable behavior, could potentially reduce O’Donnell to the level of my ex-girlfriend–desirable for the moment but becoming a turn-off once her suitors get past their political libido. Is what O’Donnell represents ideologically, real? Will such candidates, new and untutored, be able to fully realize what it will actually take to limit government in a serious sense? Does their background indicate this?
Given the alternative conservatives should hope so, but this concern for genuineness extends far beyond O’Donnell. Tea Party favorite, Senator Jim DeMint said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday that if the GOP takes control in November but betrays conservatives again-as DeMint points out, his party certainly did during the Bush years-then “the Republican Party’s dead.” DeMint is not only correct, but under his leadership it’s not hard to imagine a Senator O’Donnell, or possibly a Senator Angle, generally voting for the same Tea Party principles that first brought them to the dance. DeMint knows well how the game is played on Capitol Hill and reliably plays it toward Tea Party ends.
But there is a difference between cultural conservatives like O’Donnell, Angle and on some level, even DeMint, and more libertarian leaning candidates like Rand Paul, who possess a deeper and more comprehensive constitutional philosophy, due in no small part to his upbringing. To the extent that the otherwise solidly fiscally conservative DeMint disagrees with this libertarian wing of the Tea Party, that extra-constitutional statist measures are OK so long as they reflect the values of cultural conservatives-the federal drug war, federal anti-gay marriage legislation, an increased police state, funding trillion dollar undeclared wars-that this ideological disconnect in the Tea Party might endure is the greater fear raised when we are reminded of O’Donnell’s fundamentalist background, via her talk about “witchcraft,” or even masturbation being “adultery.” No conservative should really care about O’Donnell’s views on such subjects-only to the extent that her worldview could possibly, one day, undermine or negate the larger limited government aims of the Tea Party.
Describing the Tea Party’s goals in both the short and long term, The American Conservative’s Daniel McCarthy writes, what’s “important in the long run is that a.) the GOP leadership be purged, and b.) conservatives realize that there’s a difference between being conservative and being crazy.” O’Donnell and similar Tea Party candidates have been of great value in this purging, despite occasionally exhibiting behavior that even their champions might consider “crazy.” So long as these candidates are perceived as more reliably conservative than crazy, they will likely continue to do well. To the extent that they might actually be crazy, time will tell-and the Tea Party will continue to brew.
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