On Monday, Ross Douthat of the New York Times mocked the Tea Party as the “Kurtz Republicans,” comparing them to the villain of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. On Wednesday, however, Douthat acknowledged that the Tea Party actually had some good ideas, after all. While they might have chosen the wrong strategy, he said, they had connected with the concerns of ordinary Americans (original emphasis):
…to the extent that policy differences are driving the current intra-G.O.P. fight, the populists tend to have 1) decent ideas and 2) a better sense than their establishment rivals of how to brand the party as something other than just a tool of rich people and business interests. Their strategy is disastrous, but their substance has something to recommend it.
It’s worth noting that Douthat was not entirely dismissive of Tea Party strategy before the shutdown: “Their willingness to engage in theatrical confrontations with President Obama, for instance, is part of what lends figures like Paul and Lee and Vitter the credibility to experiment with ideas from outside the Reagan-era box,” he said, though he added that they were also prone to “irresponsible” confrontations.
It is telling that Douthat seems to blame Ted Cruz and Mike Lee more than President Barack Obama for being “irresponsible.” And Douthat still cannot quite seem to shed his scorn for the Tea Party: he wants a new Republican populism that leaves “the Tea Party’s baggage by the roadside.” Are Cruz and Lee the “baggage”? Or perhaps Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell or Sarah Palin, none of whom occupies public office?
Douthat’s column helped me clarify a feeling I’ve had about the Tea Party-establishment divide for quite some time. Though there are some grass-roots conservatives spoiling for a fight, most of the aggression comes from the top down. And here’s the reason: for the Tea Party, the “baggage” is specific politicians and ways of doing business. For many inside the Beltway, the “baggage” to be dumped are the GOP’s voters.