Gov. Chris Christie is the Republican man of the moment, propelled by his smashing re-election victory in the deep blue state of New Jersey. In multiple interviews with national media outlets, Christie has given every indication that he has his eye on a possible presidential run. Whether his moment in the sun carries him to the White House in 2016 remains to be seen, but it provides a useful occasion for some frank observations about the Republican Party and the Tea Party movement.
Many folks in the establishment wing of the GOP see the Tea Party as their biggest problem. They are making a huge mistake with such thinking, for two reasons. First, public distrust of government is at an all-time low. Defending career politicians will inevitably be seen as business-as-usual politics and a symptom of what's wrong with the country. So attacking the Tea Party makes about as much sense as jumping on the Titanic just as its bow started pointing toward the stars.
Second, to a great degree, the Tea Party represents the heart and soul of the party and provides most of the energy, volunteers and enthusiasm during the campaign season. The historic GOP victories in the 2010 election were a direct result of the Tea Party. Alienate the GOP grassroots and establishment Republicans will find themselves without an army to lead.
As for the folks in the Tea Party movement, President Reagan would almost surely remind them of his rule that “my 80 percent friend is not my 20 percent enemy.” The frustration and bitterness produced by Republican double-talk since President George H.W. Bush's infamous “read my lips” debacle is understandable, but those repeated disappointments don't repeal the fundamental rule of American politics: To shape public policy, it is first necessary to win elections and then to compromise, in a way consistent with strongly held principles, once in office. Getting 80 percent of an agenda beats losing 100 percent of it every time.
There was a time when Republicans for the most part respected the party's 11th Commandment - “Thou shalt not speak evil of a fellow Republican.” Reagan often repeated the commandment, which was first promulgated by then-California Republican Party Chairman Gaylord Parkinson. But that was the same Reagan who a decade later erected “a bold banner, not pale pastels” and challenged a sitting president of his own party. After very nearly defeating President Ford, Reagan joined him on the GOP convention stage and campaigned all over the country on his behalf through Election Day.
So there is neither anything unprecedented nor wrong with primary challenges such as those being mounted across the country by Tea Party candidates or by establishment Republicans looking to unseat Tea Partiers. Assuming everybody concerned adopts Reagan’s graciousness, vigorous debate over the direction of the party will bring it closer to the bedrock principles of most Americans. That is how Reagan won the votes of millions of Democrats and Independents in blue and purple states across the Northeast and the Midwest. It’s time Tea Partiers and establishment Republicans followed his example.