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Today: Is Tea Party political poison?

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Cal Thomas is a conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a liberal Democratic strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot.
Today: Is Tea Party political poison?
Bob: Whether in poker or in politics, I just love watching a person or group overplay their hand — which brings me to the Tea Party. This fringe group is holding a pair of 8’s, at best, but they’re charging ahead like they’re sitting on four aces.
Cal: How so?
Bob: Tea Partiers are dictating the terms of the political debate within the GOP, and the Republicans will crash and burn unless someone has the gumption to stand up to these bullies and to ultimately call their weak hand.
Cal: The Tea Party movement wants to drag the GOP back to its roots, which means not trying to manage big government, but reducing its size. Its supporters also advocate personal responsibility and accountability while expanding freedom.
Bob: Does that really sound like a winning political message to you? What Americans want are jobs, not clap-trap like that. Look Cal, I’ve seen the likes of this before in the Democratic Party.
Cal: What? People with principles actually fighting for a cause greater than themselves?
Bob: Exactly! But it was the 1960s, and I’m talking about the anti-Vietnam War movement (of which I was a part). We were strongly identified with the Democratic Party at the time. As a result, Democrats were seen as weak on national security and politically far left, and blue-collar Democrats fled the party. The Tea Party movement is having a similar effect on the Republicans. The party is shifting out of the mainstream of American politics.
Cal: The “mainstream” of American politics is a very fluid stream, Bob. What looks extreme one year might look wise or even prescient the next. Think about the civil rights movement.
Bob: I just see plenty of similarities between then and now. I mean, the anti-war left drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House. Think about that. The man who authored the Great Society, the war on poverty and civil rights legislation was shown the door.
Cal: And this has what to do with the Tea Party?
Bob: The Tea Party is making demands on Republican presidential candidates that are too far to the right. Government is the evil overlord. No new taxes, no matter the need. Repeal health care reform, no questions asked. If out of fear of the Tea Party the GOP hopefuls go along with this radical thinking, centrist voters will scurry away.
Cal: Let’s stop using labels like “radical.” It keeps us from having a civil conversation. The fact is — and it is a fact — we can’t go on with Medicare and Social Security as they are. That’s the message Tea Partiers are sending.
Bob: A Pew poll in April found that only 22% of voters agreed with the Tea Party. Even among Republicans, only 42% backed Tea Party principles, down from 45% a year ago. That said, like the Democratic anti-war activists of the ’60s and ’70s, the Tea Party will have an exaggerated but important role in Republican presidential primaries in 2012.
Cal: Polling often measures perceptions, not reality. And you know who shapes perceptions. So what are you predicting?
Bob: Keep that head in the sand, Cal. In 1972, Democratic activists nominated George McGovern as the party presidential nominee and in the process steamrolled the Democratic Party establishment. McGovern went on to lose 49 states. If the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 is seen as a Tea Party candidate, I predict a near-repeat. Maybe not 49 states, but an electoral landslide.
Cal: And you would be the first to say McGovern was right about that war, and I have said I agree with him that we can’t be the world’s policeman. To my earlier point, sometimes an “extreme” in one decade can become mainstream in another.
Bob: True, but we’re dealing with today’s political reality. The Tea Party has already hurt the Republicans by helping to nominate three far-right Senate candidates in Nevada, Delaware, and Colorado. These states would likely have gone Republican with more acceptable conservative candidates. The Republicans lost all three.
Cal: That wasn’t the result of the Tea Party, but of weak candidates. Stronger candidates with the same principles would have won. Tea Party members are trying to emphasize principles, not personalities.
Bob: Quite true, but their principles are theirs alone, and a bridge too far for a strong majority of Americans.
Cal: The anti-slavery movement in the 19th century was once considered extreme, but now is regarded as brave. It was the same with the civil rights movement. Opponents pointed to rabble-rousers like Stokely CarmichaelH. Rap Brown and Malcolm X, ignoring the peaceful pleadings of Martin Luther King Jr.
Bob: And what’s the connection to the Tea Party here?
Cal: The movement wants to return America to constitutional principles. That’s extreme only in the minds of those who don’t.
Bob: No one in the Democratic Party wants to move away from constitutional principles. The Tea Party has no corner on constitutional principles.
Cal: It depends on one’s view of the Constitution. The far left sees it as a “living document,” to be used to advance their agenda. Tea Partiers see it is a fundamental guide based on unshakable principles, which, like a GPS, will take us where we need to go if we just pay attention to what it tells us.
Bob: Well, if the Republican Party paid attention to its political GPS, it would look at those three Senate races I mentioned, as well as last Tuesday’s special election in New York’s 26th congressional district, and see the cliff ahead for 2012. In this solid GOP sanctuary, Republican Jane Corwin lost to Democrat Kathy Hochul. Why? Because a Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, took thousands of votes from Corwin. By the way, Hochul ran against the Medicare plan passed by House Republicans and supported by the Tea Party.
Cal: One election does not make a trend, and in this case, Democrats won by shamefully attacking Medicare reform, despite their own historic failings on the issue.
Bob: If I were to look up “denial” in a dictionary, Cal, there very well might be a photo of you. Here’s the reality: A number of mainstream Republicans who would have been credible have decided not to seek the 2012 nomination. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana is the latest. One of them told me privately that part of his decision not to run was “because I’m not gonna bow down to fringe Tea Party demands.”
Cal: We have heard all of this before. Ronald Reagan was too extreme to win the first time. George W. Bush was “too religious” and “divisive.” The Left always seeks to marginalize conservatives as extreme and claims their presence means defeat for Republicans.
Bob: Well clearly you’ve dug your heels in on this one, so let’s at least see where we can agree. Just as with the anti-war left during the Vietnam era, the Tea Party of today has brought some urgency to issues that stand to deeply affect this country. I don’t agree with much that the Tea Party stands for, but I can applaud their vigor, their engagement with the process and their love of country. But as a political tactician, I can also say that if they get to the helm of the GOP ship in 2012, that ship sinks.
Cal: Fair enough. I can buy the first part of your point about the value of all views to our national dialogue, even when those views are leftist and detached from reality — as I often view them. But you may very well eat your words about the Tea Party. And I suspect you will.

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