WASHINGTON — The unfolding GOP primary season is clarifying two points: The Republican establishment is back, and it is more conservative than you'd think.
In the North Carolina Senate primary, the establishment winner, Thom Tillis, was the American Legislative Exchange Council's 2011 legislator of the year and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and National Right to Life. Yet he was attacked by tea party groups as a RINO — expanding that term to cover just about every Republican who doesn't own a tricorn hat.
Tillis' main tea party opponent, Greg Brannon, possessed no apparent qualifications for public office, except a sense of divine calling and a remarkable facility for quoting the Constitution. For Glenn Beck, this was more than enough. "I could tongue kiss you," Beck told Brannon during an interview, "and I'm not a guy who does that." FreedomWorks added its wet embrace, boasting of the number of phone calls it had made and lawn signs it had raised. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flew in for a last-minute smooch.
But the Republican establishment — after years of being ambushed and accommodating its ambushers — was ready this time. Groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads spent millions to avoid the emergence of another Sharron Angle or Christine O'Donnell — candidates who motivate their thousands and alienate their ten thousands. For the GOP, North Carolina was a victory of sorts: an expensive victory, consisting of avoiding disaster.
This struggle has taken a while to fully emerge. At first, the GOP attempted assimilation. In 2012, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was made the vice president for grassroots outreach at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, apparently on the theory that arsonists make the best firefighters. Cruz did his party a vital but unintentional service — forcing a government shutdown over Obamacare repeal, which then forced a GOP reassessment of tea party intentions. The decisive break came when tea party groups began attacking solid Senate conservatives such as Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., as quislings. Tea party leaders managed to confuse petulant, childish, counter-productive legislative tactics with constitutional fidelity. And Republican leaders finally realized that some tea party agendas — list building, fundraising, presidential primary positioning — were inconsistent with their own.
The government shutdown may turn out to have been the high-water mark — the Cemetery Ridge — of the tea party movement. In the aftermath, House Speaker John Boehner declared that tea party groups had "lost all credibility" and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promised that the party would "crush" outsiders targeting incumbents. The next two months of primary battles will determine the final tally of the squashed. But high-profile tea party challenges in many places — including Kentucky and South Carolina — have faded.
The GOP establishment backlash has been successful for a particular reason: It has been led by politically rational conservatives, not the RINO moderates of tea party nightmares. Rockefeller Republicans are as rare as giant pandas; both cause passersby to point and gawk. The consensus among Republican legislative leaders and prospective presidential candidates is Reaganite (or right of Reagan) in most respects. So the tea party revolt must not only fight against RINO enemies, it must imagine them.
For some tea party groups and leaders, an ever-narrowing orthodoxy is the objective. Their approach resembles the more extreme forms of Protestantism, in which a passion for doctrinal purity divides and divides until there is a true church of one. The Republican Party, constituted to win majorities, has begun pushing back in primary contests. Which is necessary, and not sufficient.
The main problem with the tea party movement is not tactical or tonal but ideological. Its leaders quote the Constitution to end political discussions: Where do you find the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Institutes of Health or Social Security in the language of the document? Most of the Founders (particularly the Federalist ones) saw the Constitution as the beginning of a political discussion: How does a free nation employ this remarkable structure to confront its problems and achieve its greatness?
Some quote the Constitution as a substitute for a policy agenda. It is easier, after all, to memorize than to govern. But a majority political party will convincingly address public needs: routine educational failure, increasing higher-education costs, gaps in health coverage and the like. This is what self-government under the Constitution looks like.
Yes, the GOP needs electable candidates. It also needs for those candidates to have something useful and hopeful to say.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.