By David Frum
Published: 7:47PM BST 20 Jun 2010
The bill for the Republicans' Tea Party is about to arrive. Through 2009 and the first half of 2010, the media have buzzed with delighted horror over the supposedly unstoppable Tea Party movement in the United States. Now it's reality time.
Compare two sets of Senate races. The first is made up of contests in New Hampshire, Ohio and Illinois. The first two of these seats had been held by Republicans who did not seek re-election; the Illinois seat was formerly held by Barack Obama.
To contest these, Republicans nominated a range of mainstream candidates. In Illinois they have Mark Kirk – a socially moderate, fiscally conservative member of Congress, who represents the suburbs north of Chicago.
In Ohio, the Republican candidate is Rob Portman, a former US Trade Representative and White House budget chief. Kelly Ayotte is likely to win the Republican primary in New Hampshire. Currently the state's attorney general, she is a mainstream conservative: for lower taxes, against abortion. This is exactly the kind of candidate Republicans ought to nominate, and all three look set to win. Result: two holds and one net gain in the Senate.
But this good news for the mainstream GOP is balanced by the grim tally for Tea Party candidates. Consider another set of races. In Kentucky and Nevada, Tea Party activists won nominations for two of their own: Rand Paul and Sharron Angle. Both have aligned themselves with an array of wild positions. Mrs Angle wants to abolish social security and Medicare and has spoken favourably of armed insurrection against the federal government.
Mr Paul has declared his dislike of laws forbidding businesses to discriminate on grounds of race. He fears that global elites are plotting to abolish the dollar and substitute a new North American currency, "the Amero".
Mrs Angle's problem seems less that she is kooky and more that she cannot speak without saying something foolish. Republican leaders have barred her from speaking to the press until she is "ready" – which they acknowledge may take some weeks.
The more poised and presentable Mr Paul seems haunted by the conspiracies that obsess his father, the former American presidential candidate Ron Paul. In Rand Paul and Sharron Angle's cases, the Tea Party has tipped sure Republican wins into excruciatingly near things.
Kentucky was previously held by Republican Jim Bunning. On the day Rand Paul won the GOP nomination, he led the Democratic nominee Jack Conway by almost 30 points. Mr Paul now leads by only six – and Mr Conway has not yet launched his negative ads.
Nevada is the most recession-battered state in the union, with unemployment of over 14 per cent. The seat is held by the Democratic leader in the Senate, Harry Reid. His work to enact Obama's agenda has pushed him too far Left for his western state. Three months ago, he was almost universally assessed as a dead duck. Against Mrs Angle – and armed with $9 million in ready cash – he has a chance.
In other words, while moderates have held two and gained one, the Tea Party radicals may have lost one and thrown away another. But you have to look at a third state, Pennsylvania, to assess the true cost of Tea Party radicalism. The huge Democratic victory of 2008 none the less left Democrats one seat shy of the 60 votes needed to break the power of a Senate filibuster.
But when Pennsylvania Republican Senator Arlen Specter voted in favour of Obama's fiscal stimulus, a mutiny erupted on the Republican Right. Pat Toomey, an ex-Congressman who headed a pressure group sympathetic to the Tea Party, announced that he would challenge Specter in the next year's Republican primary.
It is hard to recall a more spectacular political miscalculation than Toomey's. As his challenge gathered force, Mr Specter jumped ship to the Democrats, giving Obama the magic 60 Senate votes needed for health care reform.
Mr Specter has since lost the Democratic primary as well. Polls show a tight race between Pat Toomey and Joe Sestak, the new Democratic standard-bearer. But even if Mr Toomey prevails, the harm has been done. Obama's health care plan was unpopular in Pennsylvania. With habitual opportunism, Mr Specter would have heeded the political winds and voted nay. A reminted Arlen Specter, desperately in need of White House support in the 2010 Democratic primary, had no choice but to vote in favour.
It's difficult for a political party to think strategically after a political defeat as severe as 2008's. But the Tea Party elevated the inability to think strategically into a fundamental conservative principle. Its militants denounce those Republicans who have resisted the movement as ideological traitors: "Republicans in name only" or even (charmingly) as "Vichy Republicans". In fact, the unthinking rejectionism of the Tea Party has strengthened Obama's political position. Now it threatens to deplete Republican strength in Congress, losing races that could have been won.
David Cameron's Conservatism responds to local British conditions. It's not an export product. But there is at least one big lesson that Americans could learn from him when the Tea Party finally ends: yes, a party must champion the values of the voters it already has. But it must also speak to the voters it still needs to win.
David Frum is a former speechwriter for President George W Bush.
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