Some of the incomprehension progressives are expressing about the rage of people like the voters who croaked the career of Eric Cantor may reflect an inadequate understanding of how they view political history. Here’s the reminder I offered at Washington Monthly today.
[T]here’s an important aspect of conservative grievances with the Republican Establishment that makes all the talk of immigration reform or the Ryan-Murray Budget or Defunding Obamacare being the catalyst for revolt more than a little short-sighted. It was nicely articulated by RCP’s Sean Trende on Wednesday:[A]nalysts need to understand that the Republican base is furious with the Republican establishment, especially over the Bush years. From the point of view of conservatives I’ve spoken with, the early- to mid-2000s look like this: Voters gave Republicans control of Congress and the presidency for the longest stretch since the 1920s.
And what do Republicans have to show for it? Temporary tax cuts, No Child Left Behind, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, a new Cabinet department, increased federal spending, TARP, and repeated attempts at immigration reform. Basically, despite a historic opportunity to shrink government, almost everything that the GOP establishment achieved during that time moved the needle leftward on domestic policy. Probably the only unambiguous win for conservatives were the Roberts and Alito appointments to the Supreme Court; the former is viewed with suspicion today while the latter only came about after the base revolted against Harriet Miers.
The icing on the cake for conservatives is that these moves were justified through an argument that they were necessary to continue to win elections and take issues off the table for Democrats. Instead, Bush’s presidency was followed in 2008 by the most liberal Democratic presidency since Lyndon Johnson, accompanied by sizable Democratic House and Senate majorities.
You don’t have to sympathize with this view, but if you don’t understand it, you will never understand the Tea Party.
I personally plead innocence to the charge of failing to understand the deep movement-conservative grievances against W., which reinforced the sense of mistrust and betrayal generated by Poppy and feeds negative feelings towards Jebbie. But as Paul Waldman notes at the Prospect, this is a difficult perspective for many liberals to “get.”
It’s worth remembering that even the sainted Ronald Reagan experienced a bit of a conservative backlash during his second term in office. In a very real sense, the last Republican leader fully trusted by movement conservatives was Barry Goldwater, and it’s his legacy today’s conservative insurgents are carrying forward a half-century after the fact.
This is why I’m a bit skeptical towards the theory that what gives the right-wing Tea Folk their mojo is an unprecedented anti-Wall Street “populism” that is likely to erupt in the Democratic Party as well. Yes, there is hostility to TARP and “crony capitalism” across the spectrum. But the very particular “populism” of the right is one that is furious at virtually every expansion of the federal government since the 1930s. It’s not new, just renewed, and angrier than ever.