Monday, October 4, 2010

Whigging Out? Christine O'Donnell v. Rand Paul

In my last post, I noted the similarities between the rhetoric of today's Tea Party and the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s and 1840s, while noting that some recent nominees claiming the Tea Party mantle, like Christine O'Donnell, complicate that picture. Many of the people who cast themselves in that role of Tea Party candidate don't always conform to the primarily fiscally conservative, small government positions of a Rand Paul. Candidates like O'Donnell who also adopt religiously informed policies not only break with the Jacksonian model, they expose the potential difficulty in turning the Tea Party into a coherent political force, and the problem that poses for the Republicans.

The Democratic Party's opposition in the 1830s and 1840s was the Whig Party.  Where the Democrats wanted small government, the Whigs favored an active federal government.   In their 1844 platform, they stated forthrightly their position: "The Whig party have always been distinguished from their opponents by the attribution of a beneficent and protective power to government."  Mostly, that meant their programs of a national bank and internal improvements (what we would call infrastructure).

There was another side to the Whigs, however.  They were also the party of religious evangelicals and moral reformers, and the followers of Jackson objected as much to that as to their economic program. Jackson biographer Robert Remini writes: "Democrats portrayed Whigs as bigoted and self-righteous religious fanatics intent on imposing their ethical values on others."

The Democrats, by contrast, were the party of what passed for "diversity" in those days. In the words of Daniel Walker Howe, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for What God Hath Wrought,  the Oxford History of the United States for the period 1815-1848 (who will also be the Lewis P. Jones Visiting Professor of History at Wofford College this coming spring), the Democrats "hoped America would remain culturally (that is, morally) heterogeneous, so that a variety of religious options could be exercised."

So a candidate like Christine O'Donnell, who made her name in religiously inspired organizations such as the Concerned Women for America, whose goal is to "bring Biblical principles into all levels of public policy" and SALT, the Savior's Alliance for Lifting the Truth, on some level more resembles a Whig than a Jacksonian.  O'Donnell has claimed that she has "heard the audible voice of God" guiding her politically, and she has a simple, black and white view of morality: "There's only truth and not truth.  You're either very good or evil."

Compare O'Donnell's record to Rand Paul's college exploits, involving marijuana use and worshipping the "Aqua Buddha."  While attending Baylor University, Paul allegedly belonged to a "'secret society' called the NoZe Brotherhood. The society was 'a refuge for atypical Baylor students' and enjoyed needling the school's administration and its piousness."  Can you get more pious than Christine O'Donnell?

Can we really call both of these people Tea Party candidates? Does the label mean anything coherent if it applies to both? Social and religious conservatives like O'Donnell dilute the economic message that Tea Party front men like Dick Armey want to emphasize in this election cycle, when the most important issue is the weak economy.  And libertarians like Rand Paul threaten to alienate the religious conservatives within the Republican Party.

The problem for the Republican Party is that it cannot afford to disown or alienate the religious wing that has been a key to its electoral successes at least since Ronald Reagan.  Reagan's two landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 forged a coalition of fiscal and religious conservatives which has never been entirely reconcilable since the Great Communicator left the political stage.  In the years since, the Republicans have been most successful when they have managed to bridge the gap between the two.  But that means tempering the extremes, and the Tea Party's greatest success this primary season has been to accentuate the extremes, giving us candidates such as O'Donnell and Paul.  The establishment did not choose either O'Donnell in Delaware and Paul in Kentucky, but the party is stuck with them.  If by chance they both wind up in the Senate, those unresolved tensions in the Republican Party may burst forth like never before.

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