New Hampshire Republicans vote today and, barring the unexpected, Mitt Romney will celebrate another tepid victory, earning a fraction of his party’s support. The Republican establishment will then begin its coronation effort in earnest, working hard to end the comic tragedy that this primary has been for the party. In so doing, they will surely further alienate the tea party activists they once encouraged—and just as surely risk further dividing their already fractured party. If President Obama is lucky, the GOP establishment may even invite a third-party challenge for itself.
Democrats and many progressives are watching all of this with glee. The Republicans are, it seems, eating their just desserts.
For four years, Republican leaders have fanned the tea party’s destructive flames. They’ve been stoking the rage of the conservative fringe ever since Sarah Palin stood up and told armed, angry crowds of white people that they were the “real America.” When that divisive strategy failed to win the presidency, the party’s establishment happily mounted its tea party tiger and rode roughshod over Capitol Hill. The unvarnished cynicism of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner has been at times obscene; they’ve openly preferred a failed Obama presidency to a successful economic recovery. And the tea party caucus has provided cover for this ugliness, allowing Republican leaders to throw up their hands in helplessness—sorry dude, we’d like to make an effort at governing, but the caucus just won’t allow it.
Given all of this, it’s understandable that many progressives welcome the Republican foibles of recent months. Let them hobble out of the election a divided, weakened party and perhaps in the next four years we’ll see an emboldened, truly reformist Obama presidency, right? Maybe. There’s little doubt the Republican Party’s implosion is good for Democrats. But that doesn’t make it a good thing for those of us who want to see real progress toward a just society.
To be sure, for the Obama camp the Republican primary has truly been a grand old party. Political chief David Axelrod crowed with joy following the Iowa caucuses, noting that Romney got barely more votes than he had just four years earlier—when he lost. “He’s still the 25 percent man,” Axelrod jeered in a morning-after call with reporters. “It is very possible that this race will go on for a while.” And it’s hard to argue with him: The GOP’s newly built, tea party base clearly does not like Mitt Romney.
Congressional Democrats are equally eager to see the tea party show go on. Much like on the national stage, established Republicans are facing frustratingly difficult local primaries that will at least weaken them in the general election—and in some cases produce beatable candidates like 2010’s Sharron Angle.
Take my home state of Indiana. The widely respected Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, who’s been the state’s trusted grandfather since I was a grade schooler, is staring down a meaningful threat from a tea party challenger. Why? In part because unemployment in Indiana is high and people are pissed. Also, though, because he had the audacity to support a path to citizenship for anxious Hoosiers’ undocumented brown neighbors. So now Lugar is fighting for his job, making the once-safe Republican Senate seat vulnerable to Democratic attack. They’ll either have a substantially weakened Lugar to run against, or a neophyte tea party candidate with extreme views. If you’re a Democrat, these are happy times.
But once we set the horse race of partisan politics aside, the Republican collapse begins to look less gratifying. Here’s the thing: Elections are for incumbents all about being held accountable for their choices. And what the Obama White House needs more than anything at this juncture is a jolt of accountability from the social justice reformers who believed in the change it sold four years ago.
Democratic Party leaders have for generations distracted their own base with the horrific threat of their Republican challengers. From LGBT people to unionized workers, the message is too often the same: Never mind our failings, look at the scary other guys. That’s long been a winning strategy for uniting the Democratic coalition. But the Obama team has wielded it against progressive critics with particular vengeance. Indeed, the tea party has in some ways been as helpful a distraction for the White House as it has been an obstructionist tool for the Republicans.
In this light, the Republican field that’s emerging from Iowa and New Hampshire is tailor made for the Obama administration to avoid a much needed reality check with its own reformists supporters. The president will be able to run simultaneously against the lunacy of a Rick Santorum—or, whoever wins the so-called “conservative primary”—and the weakness of Mitt Romney. The latter poses little threat with voters and the former keeps picky progressives off his tail. As long as he faces no meaningful challenge, the president has little reason to vow a course correction from the choices of his first term.
The good news, though, is the president is working hard early to get his own party in order. As the GOP primary has distracted most of the nation with its wild show, the president has taken the opportunity to use the executive power that social justice advocates have been begging him to wield since January 2009. He appointed a consumer watchdog chief. He kept the National Labor Relations Board running. His FCC squashed the AT&T-T-Mobile merger. And he’s even eased off the gas on the relentless pace of deportation that has tarred his presidency.
These are just the sorts of tangible, meaningful policy victories that reformers can eek out when the major parties go to battle with one another. The more meaningful threat the president faces, the more likely we can win more of them. So while I do find the Republican primary battle an amusing piece of political theater, I’m not sure it’s terribly helpful for winning the change I already believe in.