Tuesday June 22nd 2010 America's right The risks of Hell, no! The tea-party movement is pushing the Republicans to the right. That may make it harder to recapture the White House from Barack Obama Jun 10th 2010 | Washington, dc IN MOST democracies, politicians have a wretched time in opposition. America arranges things differently. Even in opposition, the minority party can still play a powerful role. It can propose, shape andthanks to the arcane filibuster rules of the Senatefrequently block legislation. It can run big state governments and try out new ideas there. And because elections in America are so frequent, it never has to wait long for the next chance to win back the allegiance of the national electorate. For Americas Republicans the 17 months since Barack Obama replaced George Bush in the White House have been unexpectedly sweet. Fewer than 50% of Americans now approve of the way he is doing his job, down from the high 60s at the beginning of 2009. His insouciant handling of the oil spill in the Gulf is under fire from all sides. And his big victory over health-insurance reform has not turned his ratings round. On the contrary, the Republicans hope that Obamacare is going to give them even bigger gains in November when 36 seats in the Senate, all the seats in the House, and 37 governorships will be up for grabs in the mid-term elections. What have the Republicans done to deserve this? Nothing at all, say the Democrats, apart from leaving behind an economic catastrophe and then being as obstructive as possible while Mr Obama struggles to clean up the mess. Democrats now call the Grand Old Party the party of No. Not a single House Republican voted for the stimulus package in January 2009. In the end, not a single Republican in the House or Senate voted in favour of health reform. The Republicans showed grudging support for financial regulation but only, Democrats say, because public anger at Wall Street left them no choice. Republicans make no apology for their obstructionism. When thousands of them gathered in New Orleans in April for the four-yearly Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the word from the speakers was not just No. It was, as Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, put it, Hell No! Even mainstream Republican politicians now portray themselves as the thin red line defending Americas constitution, liberties and moral values from an arrogant president who is determined to appease Americas enemies, drown future generations in debt and turn Gods own country over to a godless socialism. In New Orleans Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and possible presidential candidate, called Mr Obama the most radical president in American history, posing as great a threat to America as the Soviet Union once did. Will Americans believe this apocalyptic narrative? The fast-brewing success of the tea-party movement, a widespread mutiny against big government that erupted after Mr Obamas election, suggests that many will. The media have a habit of lampooning the tea-partiers as ultra-conservatives and closet racists. But these people tend to be better educated and better-off than the average. Most are middle-aged and white. They care more about the fate of the economy and the growth of big government than culture-war issues such as abortion and religion. They strongly disapprove of Mr Obama, or at least of what he is doing. And they are angry. Bubbling revolt Anger is a formidable asset in politics, and the tea-partiers have been a formidable asset to the Republicans. They helped Scott Brown, a Republican, capture the late Ted Kennedys former Democratic bastion in Massachusetts in January. Most are or have been Republicans and have no desire to split the conservative vote by creating a third party. The Grand Old Party is naturally eager to benefit as much as it can from the movements energy, passion and dollars. Yet there are risks involved. Some Republican strategists fear that instead of the party co-opting the movement, the movement could co-opt the party. In primary contests across America, tea-partiers are working to ensure that only candidates they deem to be proper conservatives win the nomination. The party establishment dares not ignore this interference, but is not always glad of it. In Kentucky last month the retirement of the junior Republican senator, Jim Bunning, produced a bitter contest between Trey Grayson, Kentuckys secretary of state, and Rand Paul, son of the Texas libertarian, Ron Paul. Mr Grayson had been selected for Mr Bunnings seat by the states senior senator, Mitch McConnell, who is also the Republican leader in the Senate. But Mr Paul had the ardent support of the tea-partiers, and routed the establishment candidate by a margin of 23 points. This followed hard on the heels of Utahs Republicans dumping Bob Bennett, a three-term sitting senator who had failed to find favour with the tea-party movement. In Arizona J.D. Hayworth, a tea-infused challenger running on a strong anti-immigration platform, has forced the defending senator, John McCain, sharply to the right. The former Republican presidential nominee was once proud of his readiness to defy the party line. Now the former champion of liberal immigration reform supports the controversial new law in Arizona that empowers the police to demand the documents of people they stop and suspect of being illegal immigrants. Tea-partiers know that by dividing the right they are in danger of helping the Democrats. A warning came last November from upstate New York, when the movement forced the official but moderate Republican candidate out of the race for a vacant congressional seat. This split the conservative vote and let in the Democrat. Harry Reid, the Democrats majority leader in the Senate, was plainly delighted that a tea-party candidate, Sharron Angle, won the Republican nomination this week in Nevada, where he faces a tricky election in November. Some of her policies, such as the privatisation of Social Security (pensions) and elimination of the Department of Energy, may help him to survive. A worrying defection A different sort of drama is unfolding in Florida, where Charlie Crist, the Republican governor of the Sunshine State, is making a run for the Senate. He had the endorsement of the party establishment until the tea-partiers threw their weight behind Marco Rubio, a talented young Cuban-American. Mr Crist is hardly a RINO (a Republican In Name Only, in conservative lingo). He is pro-guns, claims to favour low taxes and opposes gay marriage. But a televised hug he gave Mr Obama early last year at a rally in support of the stimulus bill scandalised conservatives. As Mr Crists support drained away, he announced in April that he was leaving the party and running as an independent. Republicans who do not face re-election this year are freer to follow their instincts, but it is not easy even for them. Tea-partiers, conservative broadcasters and the right-wing bloggers have pilloried Lindsey Graham, an independent-minded senator from South Carolina who does not face re-election until 2014. His readiness to compromise with Democrats on issues such as climate change and the treatment of terrorist detainees is considered gravely delinquent in the party of No. Last month Mr Graham suspended co-operation on energy and immigration, accusing the Democratic leadership of playing electoral politics on these issues. But attacks from his own party may have taken their toll. By splitting the right, Mr Crists defection in Florida could well deliver the state to a Democrat in November. But true conservatives consider internal dissent, and even setbacks in elections, a small price to pay for restoring purity. Indeed, a strong theme of the tea-party circuit is that even Mr Obamas election as president was a blessing in disguise. A McCain victory would only have prolonged the squishy centrism that has puffed up the federal government and crushed the rights of states and the freedoms of the people. Having a socialist in the White House, they say, has at least forced the American people to see the danger straight. Many senior Republicans now argue that voters were right in 2008 to punish a party that had fallen in love with big government. Conservatism didnt fail America, declares a former senator, Rick Santorum. Conservatives failed conservatism. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a darling of the tea-partiers, has set up a Senate Conservatives Fund to raise money for true conservatives and fend off the impostors. It helps only the most principled candidates nationwide who believe in the timeless conservative principles of limited government, strong national defence and traditional family values. The right of the party crackles with such initiatives. The tea-partiers have produced a ten-point Contract from America they would like all candidates to sign. In February a gathering at George Washingtons estate in Virginia issued a portentous Mount Vernon Statement reaffirming the founding ideas of limited government, individual liberty, free enterprise and the prudent (Iraq and Afghanistan have taken their toll) advancement of freedom overseas. The truths we endorse once again have not changed since the American revolution, said one signer, Grover Norquist, the influential president of Americans for Tax Reform. They will not change in another 200 years. It is, of course, easier to insist on purity if, like Mr DeMint, you do your politics in a solid red conservative state such as South Carolina, or, like Mr Norquist, you do not seek elective office. But can this be a winning strategy across the nation as a whole? Republicans from blue or purple states have reason to doubt it. Consider Mr Brown, the heroic conqueror of Massachusetts. Once safely ensconced in the Senate he indicated to voters in the liberal state that he would not be a doctrinaire opponent of every Democratic initiative. When he voted in favour of a controversial jobs bill in February the tea-partiers who had helped to elect him accused him of betrayal. But without leaning a bit to the left he is not likely to be elected to a second term. By the same token, Bob McDonnell, a conservative to his bones, took care in Virginia to campaign from the centre, and mainly on economic issues, to defeat the Democrats in last Novembers governors race. Party veterans fret that a fixation on purity could hamper the Republicans ability to conduct canny election-winning politics. Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi, chairman of the Republican Governors Association and possibly a presidential hopeful for 2012, argues that to win in November Republicans have to avoid division. That means embracing tea-partiers even if they defeat established Republicans in primaries. But it also means resisting the danger of being torn apart by demands for ideological conformity. In a two-party system, he once said, both parties are necessarily coalitions. Tea-flavoured demands for purity are not the only danger to unity. Another is the absence of a leader. Michael Steele has been a disastrous chairman of the Republican National Committee. On his watch, the organisation has suffered numerous embarrassments, culminating in a party-financed visit to a lesbian-bondage club in Hollywood. Mr McConnell, the Senate minority leader, is probably the closest thing the party has to a strategic co-ordinator, and he is a shrewd one. But nobody has emerged as a clear front-runner to take on Mr Obama in 2012. Take me to your leader Republican activists have had two chances this year to choose a favourite in straw polls. They voted in February at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC, and in April at the meeting in New Orleans. At CPAC Ron Paul, the father of Rand, came top with 31% of the vote and Mitt Romney, a presidential hopeful last time, second with 22%. In New Orleans their places were reversed: Mr Romney beat Mr Paul by a single vote (439 to 438). But these results, based on a few thousand votes by self-selecting activists, are not much of a guide. And neither Mr Romney nor Mr Paul is an obvious Obama-slayer. Romney v Romney, again? Mr Romney, a thoughtful self-made multi-millionaire, has been promoting a new book, No Apology, designed to counter the reputation he earned in his last campaign of having no fixed beliefs. His Mormon faith remains unpopular with many voters. And this time round he faces a new obstacle. As David Axelrod, Mr Obamas senior adviser, puts it, he has had to twist himself into a pretzel to conceal the fact that the health reform he introduced when he was governor of Massachusetts bears a striking resemblance to the hated Obamacare. If Mr Romneys problem is the fluidity of his beliefs, Mr Paul has the opposite handicap. He has run twice before, once for the Libertarian Party and in 2008 as a candidate for the Republican nomination. But if his affiliations waver, his beliefs do not. At 74 he remains a true radical, whose vision of paring government to the bone excites a youthful following. But some of his ideastaking America out of the United Nations and NATO, abolishing the Federal Reservestray far beyond the comfort zone of the average voter. Soon after winning the Republican nomination in Kentucky, his son Rand implied that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which desegregated the South, should not have applied to private businesses. He later corrected himselfbut not before reinforcing the impression that the Pauls can be cranks. The most luminous object in the Republican firmament is Mr McCains former running-mate. Sarah Palin has metamorphosed into a media star, multi-millionaire and tea-party pin-up. ABC News estimated recently that she had made more than $12m since resigning as Alaskas governor last year, about $7m of it from her book, Going Rogue. But will she run? Since her celebrity and earnings depend on keeping the speculation alive, opinion about her real intentions is divided. And for all the buzz she generates wherever she roguishly goes, she does not poll that well. The latest survey by CNN suggests that in a head-to-head Mr Obama would beat her by 55% to 42%. Worse: 69% say she is not qualified to be president and only 30% that she is. Palins ambiguous wave More than two years before the next presidential election is too early to rule out a Republican return to the White House. Ample time remains for Mr Obama to stumble (or for the economy and his ratings to recover), for Mrs Palin to improve her credibility or for other candidates to gather stature and momentum. The former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, is still a contender: the CNN poll placed him first (24%), ahead of Mr Romney (20%) and Mrs Palin (15%). Other names to conjure with include Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Mississippis Mr Barbour. A few even hope that General David Petraeus could be lured in. Place your bets Republican hopes of reclaiming the White House will of course soar if they win control of Congress in the mid-terms. Most pollsters doubt that they can add the ten seats they would need to capture the Senate. But the 41 seats they need to gain for a majority in the House are within their reach. The Democrats, after all, are stumbling. Massive stimulus spending has barely dented the jobless numbers and has pushed the deficit to vertiginous heights. But what if the Republicans do capture the House? Moving on to the White House in 2012 will require more than alighting on a plausible candidate. They will also face a tricky question. Will the policy of Hell No continue to produce political dividends once they become part of government? History offers a clue. In 1994, propelled by Mr Gingrichs small-government manifesto, the Contract with America, the Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years. As speaker, Mr Gingrich then launched an immediate guerrilla war against President Bill Clinton, culminating in a budget battle that led to a prolonged shutdown of the federal government. But the drama did not end as scripted. Most voters chose to blame the debacle on the Republicans rather than on the president. Mr Clinton was elected for a second term in 1996. With the help of the tea-party movement, Republican politicians are once again embracing the most radical wing of the party. A new manifesto, the Commitment to America, is in the works. Republicans promise that the guerrilla war they have been waging against Mr Obama from opposition will merely intensify if the mid-terms produce a Republican Congress. Obamacare will be repealedif necessary, says a Mr Gingrich unchastened by what happened last time round, by shutting off the money and engineering a crisis. That could be a perilous strategy. By 2012 the economy may well be pepping up, and familiarity might make Obamacare, and indeed Mr Obama himself, look less frightening. Besides, although Americans say they hate big government, they are also quick to defend their entitlements. By the time they come to decide whether Mr Obama is to stay or go, they may prefer the president they know to the small-government radicalism todays Republicans appear to have embraced.