No stranger to the public eye these days, the Tea Party continues to announce its fresh relevance. The latest incident to underscore the importance of the political movement is the victory of Christine O'Donnell, a family values conservative in Delaware who defeated a more moderate conservative in Mike Castle in a senatorial primary. Several liberal bloggers and commentators celebrated the victory as a case of the Tea Party cutting off its nose to spite its face--Delaware will almost certainly not go red in the midterm election as a result.
David Brooks, however, gets it right in his column today when he argues that in the short run, the Tea Party will still help to deliver a crushing blow to the Dems in the midterm. Long term, he thinks, the fallout from the movement may be bad for conservatives as the Tea Party's radical ideology (just a hop, skip, and a jump away from a form of libertarianism) is subjected to more scrutiny (presuming several external conditions like the economy somewhat reverse themselves).
Some of my own armchair theorizing: I think it bears a historical resemblace to 1994, when the GOP had massive gains and Bill Clinton was really down in the polls. In fact, Newt Gingrich has even talked about how the GOP should consider staging another massive fight over the budget in order to force the rollback or repeal of some parts of Obamacare. 1994, like today, saw an electoral cycle dominated by resentment fuelled political appeals. The GOP arguments were similarly about the problems with who was in charge. One major difference, I think, was that there was a more clearly developed platform in 1994--the Contract with America actually offered up some bipartisan policy measures like term limits, and campaigning on welfare reform (which perversely put a "human face" on a fairly noxious policy) was effective.
Today, however, its unclear what new policies the GOP would enact or try to enact. One of my professors likes to argue: don't worry, they'll have something. Even if I agree with this (I would have a little more faith in that argument if a few conservative politicians would really back Paul Ryan's budget roadmap, for example), I suspect that thinking about the coming political circumstance through a fairly simple lens of guilt and identification might paint a rosier long term picture for the Democrats. Let me explain.
To begin with, I think its a fairly uncontroversial presumption to say that in America the people identify much more with the president than the Congress or Supreme Court. How many historically important senators or house members can the average person list? Not nearly as many as presidents I'd wager. My suspicion is that this is a function of the human necessity to reduce complexity: we participate in producing the government, but we want ourselves wholly to produce it, so the way that the Congress fractures national identity is resistant to our desire to identify self with government. Generally speaking, people say the politician who most inspires them is Ronald Reagan or FDR. Rare is the figure who musters a strong defense of John Calhoun or Tip O'Neill.
Barack Obama was elected, and by a very strong margin. This fact cannot be wished away by conservatives (nor regretful liberals). And because the image of "the people" authorizes his term in the presidency, frames of rejection for his term have to negotiate with the fact that they disagree with the will of the people. In a midterm, of course, what helps facilitate this negotiation is what politicos refer to as the "enthusiasm gap" that almost always accompanies the middle of a president's first term. Right now the symbolic contours of the national political debate are being overdetermined by the poll numbers (leaning very conservative) and the visibility of the Tea Party and other conservative movements.
But a big win in the midterm cannot undo the rhetorical work done by Obama's victory in 2008--because at that moment, a lot of Americans put their stamp of approval on his brand. The result will be that a big midterm win can be understood as a conservative victory--but it will also activate implicit political frames that impugn the original judgment of "the people" in 2008. I think the result might be that we'll see something like an inversely proportional relationship-- the more the GOP runs now on "Obama is really screwing up the country" the more they encourage moves that force a decision on the part of the voters in 2012: they could either embrace a kind of Burkean perspective by incongruity and decide they screwed up when they voted for Obama, or they could double down on their support for him. Given the human tendency against humility and towards ego, my suspicion is that 2012 could still be very good for the Democrats. Especially because once the GOP owns at least the House, any continued failures on the part of the Obama administration will be understood as the GOP's fault. Because if the presidency has a disproportionately powerful role in our symbolic economy, anytime they fail to do something the logical reason can't relate to the president's weakness or failing--it will more likely be written up as something external.