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Analysis: Michigan Primaries a Tea Party Failure?

A number of pundits here and nationally have pointed to recent primary results as evidence that the Tea Party movement is ineffective or a failure. These analyses are flawed, because they are based on a conventional Republican vs. Democrat electoral politics worldview. This misses the Tea Party’s rejection of the entire ruling class establishment, including the major political parties as currently constituted.

In Michigan, the victory of Rick Snyder in the GOP governor primary over three "conservative" contenders is the first exhibit in the "Tea Party failed" narrative. Yet Mike Cox, Pete Hoekstra and Mike Bouchard were all viewed by movement members primarily as political careerists who represent the current ruling class. Most voters don't follow the detailed public policy differences between the candidates, so Snyder's victory can be legitimately viewed as a Tea-Partyish selection of an "anyone but the political class" outsider.

In two other big races, Tea Party-friendly contenders either lost or managed a tenuous one-vote victory due to the "failure" of the movement to unite behind a single acceptable candidate. "Failure" is in quotes because it implies that the movement is even capable of such strategic coalescence. It is not, more on which below.

Thus, in the 2nd congressional district Republican primary, former state Rep. Bill Huizenga defeated two "meets the Tea Party criteria" candidates. Challengers Bill Cooper and Jay Riemersma spent much of the campaign taking shots at each other rather than their two political careerist opponents.

In the 1st congressional district, Tea-Party friendly Dr. Dan Benishek won by just one vote over Republican state Senator Jason Allen (or 49 votes depending on whose numbers); Benishek anticipates that Allen and the GOP establishment will mount a contentious recount effort to reverse that outcome. Were it not for handfuls of Tea Party votes being scattered among several other outsiders, Benishek would be the unchallenged nominee right now.

On the flip side, with no money, no support, no attention, and virtually no name ID, Jack Hoogendyk, a former state representative who often sticks fingers in the political establishment's eye, quietly swiped 43 percent from Congressman Fred Upton in the 6th congressional district.  Upton unexpectedly finds himself on a 2012 "watch list."

Also, another ruling class outcast, Tim Walberg, walloped Brian Rooney in the 7th congressional district, despite the latter having the whole GOP establishment and tons of money.

Finally, in the 3rd congressional district, Tea Party favorite Justin Amash had an unimpeded run against two party establishment types and creamed both of them.

Viewed in isolation, this one election could be characterized as mixed-at-best with too many wasted Tea Party opportunities, but that misses the point: The movement is about much more than a single election. More importantly, it does not define itself in terms of particular politicians (or party). Indeed, Tea Party success can be measured more by who loses elections, and Aug. 3 provided plenty of "victories" in this regard, with an impressive list of political careerists joining the unemployment rolls.

In Angelo Codevilla's masterful analysis of today's social and political landscape, America's Ruling Class -- And the Perils of Revolution, the author notes that the "country class" — not country as in hicks but country as in "all the rest of country outside the political/ruling class" — do not have a political party that represents them:

. . . Certainly the country class lacks its own political vehicle -- and perhaps the coherence to establish one. In the short term at least, the country class has no alternative but to channel its political efforts through the Republican Party, which is eager for its support. But the Republican Party does not live to represent the country class. For it to do so, it would have to become principles-based, as it has not been since the mid-1860s.  . .  

. . . The name of the party that will represent America's country class is far less important than what, precisely, it represents and how it goes about representing it because, for the foreseeable future, American politics will consist of confrontation between what we might call the Country Party and the ruling class.

Substitute "Tea Party" for "country class" and this passage captures what I mean by that movement being larger than one election, and not being subject to normal "R vs. D" analysis. In fact, the Tea Party is just the most visible manifestation of the central political struggle of our era, the people vs. the ruling class.

For the immediate future, the real challenge for the Tea Party will be to hold newly elected GOP feet to the fire starting next January. The movement is already altering some of the incentives that cause the political class to support more big-government and spending; its success on this — not the outcome of any particular election — will ultimately be the real measure of its impact.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.