There was a cruel sense of irony this week when Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee, a life-time old fashioned “moderate” Republican announced that he was switching to the Democratic Party on the same day that Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman, Tea Party leader and former Republican Presidential aspirant, announced she was not going to seek another term in the House. Leaving aside the internal state politics in their respective states and the difficult challenges they both faced in their respective re-election bids, these moves underscore what is clearly developing into a sea-change in American party politics.
Only on the Republican side–at least so far–its followers are moving more and more away from the historical, consensual model of politics; seeking to govern or advocate governing from the extreme—in their case—right. It is not clear—although it appears unlikely at this point—that the Democrats are also moving so far off left-center; although there are certainly Members who might be so inclined.
American parties never evolved into ideological poles as parties do in Europe and in most other democratic systems. Whenever either of the two major parties drifted too far to either extreme, it failed and its center pulled the party back to the middle. Those who remained on the margins became like pressure groups but never dominated a Party. They influenced parties but never gained control of it. Today, the Tea Party Movement and the right wing of the GOP are disregarding or expelling the old line Republicans in the name of ideological purity.
Admittedly, middle of the road politics is not pure or consistent or but it was an effective method of governing since the days of Thomas Jefferson. Having driven out Arlen Spector, Olympia Snowe, and now Lincoln Chaffee can Senator Susan Collins be far behind. Meanwhile former right-wing Republicans like Orrin Hatch, Lamar Alexander, and Charles Grassley are probably making their last “go-round” before they too retire. With the likes of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, Texas’ Ted Cruz, and Utah’s Mike Lee, and an even larger, growing group of House Tea Partyers, it is likely that by 2016 the new Republican Party would be totally unrecognizable to Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and even Ronald Reagan.
Critics of the Tea Party movement should not assume for a moment that the Tea Partiers do not have as sizeable following as the do. In addition, they have large financial resources which can sustain the movement. At the local, district level and in some states, the Tea Party will continues to grow and do well; but at the national level they are moving completely in a direction opposite to where the national populous appears to be headed.
The test for the future of the Republican Party may well be seen when the House considers immigration reform later this year. At that point an immigration reform bill of some dimension appears likely to have emerged from the Senate as a result of traditional legislative horse-trading. The question will be whether the Republican controlled House controlled will perceive the need for national immigration reform as more important than whether the Tea Party followers want to their Representatives to express their own anti-immigrant feelings. The results may well demonstrate whether the GOP is interested in trying to appeal to a national constituency or whether it is clearly moving into a strict ideological oriented “new” party.