Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said a number of interesting things in his meeting with Review-Journal staffers Friday. But the comment that drew by far the most attention over the weekend was the senator’s appraisal of the durability of the tea party movement.
"The tea party was a result of the terrible economy. … That will pass," Sen. Reid said. "They will lose a number of seats next year."
No calculus by Sen. Reid can be dismissed out of hand. But the tea party has every appearance of being a legitimate grass-roots movement, with no one person steering the ship. It was born of public outrage and frustration over the vast debt being piled up in Washington to fund bailouts and stimulus plans that have prevented a necessary economic correction and shakeout, freezing failure in place without even generating promised jobs as partial compensation.
Many Americans believe what’s needed is a vast pruning of the regulatory state, to finally let America’s storied free-market entrepreneurs introduce new solutions without costly, stifling, pick-and-choose subsidies from government.
Partial evidence of this sea change came in the Republican presidential straw poll in Iowa on Saturday.
No, the Iowa polling is not a reliable indicator of who’ll win the GOP nomination, let alone the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses six months from now. Mitt Romney pretty much skipped the goings-on in Iowa, while Texas Gov. Rick Perry didn’t announce his candidacy till Saturday.
But Saturday’s close one-two finish by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul was the tea party’s shot across the bow — not only for endangered Democrats, tied by the wrists and ankles as they are to the anchor of failed Keynesian print-more-money "stimulus," but also to any thoughts establishment Republicans might have of nominating another Bob Dole or John McCain.
With former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Rep. Bachmann is widely seen as fielding the most uncompromising conservative message. And the late-career ascendancy of Rep. Paul, the 1988 Libertarian Party presidential nominee, is a minor political wonder. Rep. Paul, a physician, has long stressed the dangers of Congress abdicating its proper role in monetary policy to the group of private bankers known as the Federal Reserve. His refusal to compromise his vision of limited, constitutional government long won him praise as the "conscience of the House," but also marginalized him as the member who refused to go along to get along. No longer.
The winds of change are blowing. Whether the Republican Party can settle on a candidate able to sail those winds, turning out the energetic tea party and moderates while standing off shrill attacks from the reactionary left and its government-union allies, remains to be seen. But everything going to back to business as usual? With the tea party disappearing from the political landscape? Don’t bet on it.