Saturday, September 18, 2010

Is the Tea Party Good for the Republican Party?

Kirsten Powers has a new article about the potential potency of the tea party. She thinks it could bring a change to the Republican Party on a scale not seen since Goldwater. It’s worth remembering that that change was bad for the Republican Party.

You heard that right. Yes, it’s true that Goldwater conservatives provided energy that helped ultimately elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, who turned out to be an influential President. But at what cost?

Barry Goldwater won just six states and a measly 39% of the vote in 1964. Lyndon Johnson’s overwhelming victory gave him a mandate to push through his famous Great Society programs. Moreover, Presidents typically have an effect on down-ballot races. Moderates repulsed by Goldwater and his perceived extremism may well have voted for the Democrat for Congress. This would have meant that there were more Democrats to push through Johnson’s agenda at precisely the time he was most emboldened.

The results of Great Society are easy to see: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, pell grants, and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), all programs conservatives dislike. However much they might want to, they have not been able to repeal any of these because they have proven popular over time with the American people. In fact, during last years healthcare debate, conservatives were reduced to trying to score political points against Obama by criticizing proposed cuts to Medicare.

This brings me to Reagan. When it came to the welfare state, Reagan’s term can hardly be called a success as even many conservatives acknowledge. Interestingly enough, one of the most successful lines of attack against him during the New Hampshire primary in 1976 was that he would cut Social Security. Gerald Ford made use of Reagan’s past statements insinuating that Social Security funds should be invested in the stock market. At least partially as a result, Ford won. Ford won 53% of Republican primary voters over 65 which helped him offset a weaker performance among those under 65. In Florida where retired people were 1/3 of voters, Ford likewise prevailed.

When asked how we would then fulfill his desire to balance the budget during the 1980 primaries, he came out against “making people on Social Security or welfare or anyone else pay the price for government extravagance.” The irony here is clear: Reagan was under fire in the primaries because Republican voters were worried that he was less than totally committed to a Democratic entitlement program. During his Presidency, major programs like Medicare and Social Security continued to receive large increases in funding.

So yes, Goldwater conservatives managed to elect Reagan. It was too late by then to change government's trajectory. Similarly, it remains to be seen whether the tea party will actually do Republicans any good.

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