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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Pure Referendum Argument About Midterms

A lot of the discussion about the midterm elections, both here and in many quarters, has revolved around the question of whether these elections will ultimately be a referendum on the status quo or a “comparative” election based on assessments of the two parties. The default drive assumption in most MSM commentary (and the approach being promoted for obvious reasons by conservative media) is that it’s a referendum, which is of course a self-fulfilling prophecy if Democrats fail to change that perception because they think it’s inevitable.
But you probably won’t see a purer presentation of the “referendum” argument than that offered by New York Times columnist David Brooks yesterday. He’s taking this on in order to push back against some asserted belief by “my liberal friends” that America’s on the brink of repudiating the GOP because its Tea Party faction is so crazy.

The fact is, as the Tea Party has surged, so has the G.O.P. When this primary season began in early February, voters wanted Democrats to retain control of Congress by 49 percent to 37 percent, according to an Associated Press-Gfk poll. In the ensuing months, Tea Party candidates won shocking victories in states from Florida to Alaska. The most recent A.P./Gfk poll now suggests that Americans want Republicans to take over Congress by 46 percent to 43 percent.

Being David Brooks and all, the columnist is not about to suggest that Americans really are eating up the Tea Party message like ice cream. Instead, he’s driven to saying nobody out there really cares what Republicans say or do:

Right now, the Tea Party doesn’t matter. The Republicans don’t matter. The economy and the Democrats are handing the G.O.P. a great, unearned revival.

Brooks does acknowledge that at some point, the extremism of the Movement will begin to matter:

This doesn’t mean that the Tea Party influence will be positive for Republicans over the long haul. The movement carries viruses that may infect the G.O.P. in the years ahead. Its members seek traditional, conservative ends, but they use radical means. Along the way, the movement has picked up some of the worst excesses of modern American culture: a narcissistic sense of victimization, an egomaniacal belief in one’s own rightness and purity, a willingness to distort the truth so that every conflict becomes a contest of pure good versus pure evil.

Yeah. But is the apparent indifference of likely midterm voters to the Tea Party excesses and what it means for the Republican Party a matter of not caring about it, or not really knowing about it? I mean, conservative activists do not typically run around boasting that they want radical changes in the U.S. Constitution, the abolition of Social Security and Medicare, and elimination of environmental laws, and when they do go publicly wacky, like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, they do pay a price for it.
But it’s the job of Democrats–and to some extent, of journalists like Brooks–to draw attention to what today’s Republicans actually think. And suggesting that such details really doesn’t matter is not helpful.

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