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Pure Onsense

Regarding Ideals

Scott Zuke

(Oct, 2010) Ideals are tricky. As understatements go, Iíll be hard pressed to top that one, but itís an appropriate place to start because ideals are the driving force going into next monthís mid-term election. One could also say jobs or the economy in general is the primary issue, but if you listen to the candidates and see who has been successful so far, you will probably hear more ideological rhetoric about the role of government and conservative values than actual concrete plans for economic improvement.

The GOPís new "Pledge to America" follows the trend, weaving together long-standing Republican talking points with Tea Party rallying cries for smaller federal government.

It is by no means Republicansí first attempt to co-opt the movement. In July, a Tea Party Caucus run by Republicans was approved in Congress. Meanwhile, working from outside D.C., but still undeniably a stalwart Republican, Sarah Palin has found a niche selling her attitude.

Itís hard to deny sheís been an effective advocate for those who share her views. While Palinís own campaign is a (short) ways off, a wave of like-minded Congressional candidates has just cleared numerous primaries and is surging toward November. Like Nancy Pelosiís oft-quoted line about needing to "pass the [health care] bill so you can find out what's in it," voters will have to decide whether to elect the new batch of Tea Party candidates to find out what their agendas will actually be once they get to Washington. Agree or disagree with their politics, there may not actually be much to get excited about either way.

Itís not that I donít believe they are genuine in their intentions, especially those who are relatively new to politics and are running on true idealism more than campaign pragmatism. But there are historical observations that lead me to question the effectiveness of uncompromising principles and party stands.

Repeatedly in recent decades we have seen the arrival of powerful, ideal-driven reform movements claiming they will fight the influence of special interests and cut down on government waste. Each movement has failed more spectacularly than the last. "Change is as easy to promise as ever," writes Jonathan Rauch in his book, Governmentís End: Why Washington Stopped Working. "But it has grown a good deal harder to deliver."

One example of a failed effort to reign in Washington was the energetic Republican party under Newt Gingrich in the mid-90s. Gingrich and his followers did everything they could to assault government waste, even allowing the government to be shut down during an impasse over the budget. Rather than being praised for their unwavering adherence to their principles, however, they alienated the public, appearing obstructionist and too uncompromising. They didnít last long after that.

Why should we expect Tea Party candidates, the new generation promising strict adherence to principles over political compromising, to be any different? Because theyíre angrier? Because they have memorized the Constitution and solidified their principles based upon some interpretation of it? Doubtful.

Should these new candidates succeed in November, it will be interesting to see what, if any impact they are able to make in Washington. One challenge I believe they will face stems from a misconception of who the enemy is and where the political pressure comes from.

The conventional wisdom is that "Power corrupts," and that Washington has fallen into the hands of a power-hungry and corrupt ruling class. The Tea Party identifies the small group of unprincipled career politicians in D.C. as the source of our problems, infringing on our liberties and trying to run our lives. Rauch, on the other hand, views the so-called "ruling class" as really being more at the mercy of special interests. And not the old stereotypical ones, pulling the puppet strings from smoky back rooms, but from a huge population of open, transparent groups with vast memberships and budgets dedicated to hiring lobbyists, so that virtually any proposed action falls under immediate and relentless attack until it is dead. The problem, essentially, is us: a litigious, self-centered society where there is a system in place that rewards us more for taking money from our collective purse rather than generating new wealth through innovation and investment.

Another challenge will be to learn how to build a legislative coalition. This is true for any incoming politician, but is all the more difficult for those coming in openly critical of the establishment and promising uncompromising adherence to set principles. Politics is an art of compromise, and as unsavory as some of the results of this fact are, those who refuse to observe it donít last long.

The Tea Party candidates working to make their way to Congress have an idealized vision of how the federal government should function. That ideal, to them, is the one thing they count on for strength while facing a system they know will try to corrupt their principles, but it may also prevent them from seeing opportunities where short-term compromise will allow them to make incremental systematic changes for the better. Perhaps the attempt by the Republican establishment to co-opt them into their ranks isnít so much a power grab as it is the seasoned leadership from those who understand ideals only go so far when they are made absolute, rather than general guiding principles

Ideal-driven crusades have been tried before, and it appears they are only becoming less effective. The status quo, however, is not gaining any new supporters. At the grassroots level, the Tea Party may already be aware of this conundrum.

Here in Frederick, the Tea Party leadership is now speaking in a tone of resignation and giving up on efforts to reform Washington from within. Instead, theyíre talking about reasserting state sovereignty and electing like-minded representatives to state-level government, shifting the battlefield away from Congress, located helplessly close to K Street, and closer to the people. Whether such a retargeted effort will have any higher chance of success, or will run into the same obstacles, remains to be seen, but that just may end up being the more interesting process to keep an eye on than the current round of mid-terms.

Read other article by Scott Zuke