Many conservatives are lamenting Christine O'Donnell's upset victory over Mike Castle in Delaware's Republican Senate primary as a flagrant violation of the late William F. Buckley's "rule": "Support the most conservative candidate who is electable," in Charles Krauthammer's summary.
Opinion surveys regularly showed Castle, a congressman and former governor who has won 12 statewide races in Delaware since 1980, ahead of the Democrats' senatorial nominee. Ms. O'Donnell, a 2002 participant in the Claremont Institute's Lincoln Fellows program, has run for office before but never held one. She now faces a double-digit polling deficit in a state Barack Obama carried with 62% of the vote in 2008.
O'Donnell's victory may be "pyrrhic," as Krauthammer says, and the endorsements she received from Sarah Palin and Senator James DeMint "reckless and irresponsible." The problem, however, is that even if Buckley's rule does not require clairvoyance, as Rush Limbaugh has argued, it does depend on calculations that will always be more art than science. In the best of all possible worlds the Tea Party movement would give the GOP an infusion of desperately needed grass-roots energy, and demonstrate pitch-perfect discernment about which candidates are too conservative for a particular time and place, and which ones have hedged their conservatism just enough to be viable.
That's a lot to ask, however, not only because the movement is still a new political force, sorting out what it wants to accomplish and how, but because it is a defiantly decentralized one. As the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch has written, "From Washington's who's-in-charge-here perspective, the tea party model seems...bizarre. Perplexed journalists keep looking for the movement's leaders, which is like asking to meet the boss of the Internet. Baffled politicians and lobbyists can't find anyone to negotiate with."
The Tea Party's chief strategist position is vacant, and may never be advertised. Nonetheless, its wisdom-of-the-crowd judgments about how conservative a candidate can be without becoming unelectable compare favorably with the verdicts of some noted political analysts. Recall that in April 2009, the prospect of a successful primary challenge from Pat Toomey led Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania to leave the Republican Party and caucus with the Democrats. The conservative author David Frum wrote at the time, "Toomey now looks likely to gain the nomination he has sought—and then to be crushed by Specter or some other Democrat next November."
In fact, the Real Clear Politics average currently shows Toomey with a 9% lead over Joe Sestak, the congressman who defeated Specter in this year's Democratic primary. Nate Silver, the New York Times' number cruncher, gives Toomey a 92% chance of winning the general election.
There are three kinds of failure, Joseph Epstein wrote in Ambition: "not reaching high enough, overreaching, wanting courage." One of the Tea Party movement's central convictions is that most of the modern Republican Party's failures result from excessive timidity, not excessive audacity. As a result, it has generally taken a big-risk/big-reward approach to selecting Republican nominees.
Against the potential loss of the Delaware senate seat, the polling data argues there will be some clear successes from this fortune-favors-the-bold attitude. The risk-averse view of the 2010 midterms called for Pennsylvania's Republicans to put up with Arlen Specter's intermittent party loyalty, and Florida's to accept the somewhat conservative Governor Charlie Crist as the safest bet for its Senate seat. Instead, after driving Crist out of the Republican primary, Marco Rubio holds a 9.8% point lead in the Florida senate race, according to the Real Clear Politics average, and is given a 78% chance to win by Silver. Toomey and Rubio will be far more conservative senators than Specter and Crist.
It is better, Frum wrote after Specter joined the Democrats, "for conservatives to have 60% sway within a majority party than to have 100% control of a minority party. And until and unless there is an honored place made in the Republican Party for people who think like Arlen Specter, we will remain a minority party."
Whatever else the Tea Party movement means and intends, its disdain for this 60%-of-a-loaf strategy is apparent. The bromide that politics is the art of compromise encompasses the lesson that the political arts include knowing when not to compromise. A Republican Party that subordinates every principle and goal to attaining and keeping a majority offers more than an honored place to people who think—and speak, and vote—like Arlen Specter. It basically hands them the car keys, saying that rather than surrender a majority, conservatives will go along with whatever people who think like Specter have to do to—or say they have to do—to be electable. Conservatives may have 60% in such a majority party, but they do not have sway.
What defines the Tea Party is not only its aggressive risk-taking to advance conservative principles, but its refusal to defer to political professionals with different strategic judgments. One of the movement's victims is Senator Lisa Murkowski, who narrowly lost Alaska's Republican senate primary to Joe Miller. Murkowski's subsequent contention that "the Alaska Republican Party was hijacked by the Tea Party Express, an outside extremist group," distills the sense of ownership and entitlement—the GOP is "ours" and "they" took it—that the Tea Party has set itself against.
In this respect, the Tea Party's invocation of the spirit of the American Revolution is a little off. The closer parallel is to the age of Andrew Jackson, half a century later. In early 19th-century America, the late historian Robert Wiebe wrote, "Self-selection powered the entire democratic process. No principle lay closer to the core of its operations than the one governing participation: the way to get into American democracy was to get into it. Ask nobody's permission, defer to nobody's prior claim."
In the pursuit of its immediate goal, to conservatize Capitol Hill, the Tea Party is not going to bat 1.000. The Tea Party, however, deserves to be judged on its entire body of work, which is likely to secure victories all over the map that were unthinkable in 2009, when the movement first became a political force. Beyond compiling a good batting average, the Tea Party is displacing the passivity of spectator democracy with the active engagement of citizens who proudly get into self-government without asking permission. That achievement is far more important than the loss of a winnable election here and there.