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Published: Saturday, 10/2/2010

GOP hopes to tame the Tea Party rebellion

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — They're coming.

Not this week and not next week, but maybe next month, right after the election. The midterm congressional contests will end and, sure as the frost follows the falling leaves, the Republican presidential candidates will be here.

New Hampshire, in recent years bluer than the early autumn skies but with a bedrock Republican tradition that reaches down generations, will soon be a laboratory for the new GOP.

And so it is a perfect staging ground for a 21st-century Republican Party that is enjoying a traditional surge even as it struggles with a muscular insurgency. That last happened here in 1980, when Ronald Reagan represented the fresh forces at the gates of the party and George H.W. Bush, a Yankee patrician with a refreshing vigor, stood as the establishment figure.

In the three decades since, the Republicans have absorbed the Reagan conservatism and the Bush ascendancy and now are watching new forces compete for attention and votes. These are different Republicans with different impulses.

Some retain the social conservatism of the religious right that roiled the party in the late 1980s and 1990s. Many have a states' rights outlook that mimics the views of conservative Democrats of the 1950s and 1960s. All look at taxes with dread and loathing.

These new Republicans did not come from nowhere. You saw them on cable TV last year, assailing House members at district town meetings, drawing a line in the summer sand on President Obama's health-care overhaul.

You saw them the year before looking on in horror as their own Republican representatives lined up with a Republican president and loads of Democrats to bail out Wall Street and add billions to the deficit.

The Republican Party is trying to keep the radicals at bay even as it tries to harness their energy and anger.

It won't be easy. They want the passion at the bottom of the teacup but they worry that the caffeinated newcomers are somehow too strong a brew for governing.

They'll soon see. The most interesting poll of the past week was from Zogby International. It showed that among likely voters, the Tea Party rated higher than either established political party.

Indeed, the Tea Party is about to bag a handful of Senate seats and a bunch in the House. The first fight they'll prompt: a brutal Republican debate on earmarks.

Earmarks direct federal funding to specific projects. The new Republicans hate them. The old Republicans used to hate them but now they aren't quite so much opposed. If Republicans regain power — and thus attain important committee chairmanships — they may find that the evils of earmarks have been greatly exaggerated.

The purists are on their way to Washington and are not likely to see earmarks as a pure extract of democracy's highest ideals. Nor are they going to find the totems and taboos of Capitol Hill enlightening and ennobling.

But while parties struggle in the capital, they find their identities in presidential campaigns far from Washington.

The Republicans now have a governing platform, a modernized version of the usual mix of tax breaks for small businesses, spending freezes, and a ban on federal funding for abortion, plus repeal of Obamacare, which is about as likely as the repeal of the coming of winter on Mount Washington, where the first snow fell the other day.

After all, the President, even a weakened one such as Mr. Obama, still possesses the veto pen, which is far mightier than the insurgents' sword. But if the Republicans win the House, they still might be able to starve the health-care overhaul and perhaps influence the regulations that govern it.

Already, the Tea Partiers have helped spur traditional conservative donors from their Obama-inspired torpor, and these donors, in turn, have given millions to Republican organizations. The Republican Governors Association, not exactly a group of wackos, suddenly is a major funding recipient.

The Tea Party tumult accentuates the sense of turmoil that the American political system has spawned in recent years.

George W. Bush won the presidency after an overtime election that underlined how deeply, and how evenly, split the country was. He presided over a grief-stricken country after Sept. 11, 2001, undertook two wars, and saw his poll ratings plummet along with the economy.

Then Barack Obama led a hope-and-change crusade that inspired young and independent voters. He seemed to have created a new period of Democratic rule and Republican despair, only to see the economy continue to sputter and his own approval numbers fall. Enter the Tea Party.

The result is that the velocity of change in American politics is at a nearly unprecedented level. That has been inspiring to the Tea Party. But it ought to be a warning to the Tea Party as well — and to the rest of us. The presidential campaign may be coming, but the real question is how much more change is coming.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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