The Tea Party is a liability for the Republicans

This war for the GOP’s soul could do more harm than good – particularly if the wrong side wins.

Jon Stainbrook doesn't try to keep the excitement out of his voice. "In 2006, in 2008, if you had an R by your name, you were gonna lose," he says. "Now if there's an R by your name you win." In next week's midterm elections, he says, the Republicans are "gonna win and gonna win big. It'll be the biggest victory we've had in years."

All this, understandably, has Stainbrook rather excited. He's chair of the Republican Party in Lucas County, Ohio, one of the most solidly Democratic areas in the Midwest. But Ohio as a whole is a depressed, post-industrial wasteland that tends to be a bellwether come election time: as goes Ohio, so goes America. And this year, the state looks set to pick a Republican governor, a Republican senator and a swath of Republic congressman.

"I never thought that people would turn on Obama this quickly," says Stainbrook, with undisguised glee.

Yet if there's a downside for the Republicans, it is contained within the very movement that has done so much to energise its voter base this year. The Tea Party has been festooned with media coverage and had a number of notable victories in helping right-wing Republicans beat more moderate candidates in the party's primaries last summer. More importantly, for the first time in half a decade, it has got the party's conservative base excited about being conservative again.

But while the Tea Party may have helped the Republicans out this year, there are reasons to think it could be a liability in future elections.

Stream of anger

Problem number one is that the Tea Partiers are, not to put too fine a point on it, nuts. Horror stories about the movement's preferred candidates abound. Christine O'Donnell, the conservative running for the Delaware Senate seat, won unflattering headlines when she flatly denied that the US constitution had anything to say about the separation of church and state.

The activists are no better. Gloria Johnson, chair of the Democratic Party in Knox County, Tennessee, says her local Tea Partiers "couldn't organise their way out of a paper bag". Those turning up to a meeting in her district found that the parking garage was closed. "They couldn't face the idea of on-street parking. So they cancelled the meeting."

This is not the stuff that revolutions are made of.

A bigger problem with the Tea Party, though, is that, by picking hard-right candidates, it may be making the Republican Party less attractive to mainstream voters. Many Tea Partiers think they represent a stream of anger that runs through the entire US population. Actually, polls have found that – surprise, surprise – they are far more conservative than most of their countrymen.

This means that the Tea Party's preferred candidates may be less palatable to the electorate than the moderates they've pushed out. (In what is shaping up to be a great year for the Republicans, O'Donnell looks all but certain to lose her race.)

John Martin, a moderate conservative activist who in 2008 led the "Republicans for Obama" campaign, says unequivocally that the Tea Party will be bad for his party. "A lot of people who are running as independents today were Republicans three years ago," he points out.

Other polls have found that the Tea Party is doing more to fire up horrified Democrats than it is to build Republican support.

Grow, grow, grow your own

There is one more problem with the Tea Partiers: and that is, they don't think much of the Republican Party, either. Many see the party establishment as a bunch of just the kind of elitist career politicians they've set out to destroy. Democratic activists are full of glee that their party looks much more unified in presumed defeat than the Republicans are looking in victory.

This war for the party's soul could do more harm than good – particularly if the wrong side wins. A big Republican victory this year could lead to overconfidence, making it harder for the party to move back to the centre ground where presidential elections are won. And it could make the Republicans more likely to pick someone unelectably right-wing to run against Barack Obama in 2012.

Some activists, you sense, are aware of this problem. Stainbrook is oddly contradictory in his attitude towards the Tea Party.

He is effusive, describing it as "a wonderful, beautiful thing". "I love it," he says. "Why would we not want to nurture and grow something that's ours?" But he cheerfully admits that the Tea Partiers aren't going to stop their attacks on moderate Republicans for the sake of party unity.

And in the same breath with which he heaps praise on the movement, he concedes that it might dent his party's electoral prospects. "There is always the danger," Stainbrook says, "that if in the primary you pick an ultra-conservative then you've got a candidate that's not as palatable to the general public.

"But that's the thing," he adds quickly. "They don't want a moderate any more."

Perhaps the party doesn't. But it might just turn out that the voters do.

Jonn Elledge is a London-based journalist. In autumn 2008 he wrote the New Statesman's US election blog.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.