Suicide by tea?
Jan. 16, 2012 at 5 p.m.
Updated Jan. 15, 2012 at 7:16 p.m.
You've heard of "suicide by cop?" America is now seemingly witnessing political suicide by tea.
Tea party, that is. Only a few months ago, Republicans seemed poised to fulfill a dream: If the economy continued to recover slowly or was barely on the mend, and if President Barack Obama continued to appear to be a nice guy who could give a terrific scripted speech but was inept as a leader and problem-solver, Republicans could capture control of the Senate, Congress and White House. They could then repeal "Obamacare" and complete the job of taking over the Supreme Court, which petulant Democrats trying to teach their own party a lesson by staying home in various elections, helped the GOP nearly achieve.
But now it doesn't seem to be in the tea leaves, largely because catering to the powerful tea party pushed the party so far to the right it sparked a new ideological purity war and threatens to alienate the country's center.
When the tea party burst on the scene in 2009, top GOPers saw the conservative and libertarian movement's potential and moved in and tried to consolidate it as part of the party's base. Now the tail is wagging the elephant (to the right).
A new Gallup poll underscores Republican perils. It finds 40 percent of the electorate now describe themselves as independents, up a percentage point from the previous year - but it's a record high. Thirty-seven percent self-identify as Democrats and 25 percent as Republicans. Democrats made gains at the expense of Republicans. Another finding: Many independent voters lean Republican.
This fits in with what I found during a three-month tour last year of the mid-west and East Coast. I ran into many people who said they had been Republicans but they a) were independent now because their party was too far right for them, b) were turned off by demonizing rhetoric, c) felt Republicans need to work with Democrats, and, e) felt their party was now too far to the right on social issues.
The frenzied scramble to please the tea party and conservative base has been particularly tough for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Both were politicos who occasionally had worked with and compromised with those on the other side. Both in previous incarnations were center right. And they have been in a battle over who is the biggest hypocrite in terms of being conservative.
Romney all but obliterated Gingrich in Iowa with millions of dollars in TV ads paid for by a friendly PAC. And if you believe Romney didn't know about the ads, then let me tell you about a little furry bunny who'll sneak into your house and hide painted eggs this Easter. Gingrich had enough of Romney's painting himself as just a modest businessman who merely dabbles in politics because of a sense of public service and said enough with the "pious baloney." Which was ironic: Over the years, Gingrich has generated enough pious baloney to supply all of Hebrew National's orders for the next two years. Except Gingrich's baloney isn't Kosher.
To get the nomination, Romney and others have to jump through hoops. Romney did it clumsily and is getting stuck in some of them. If he gets the nomination, he'll likely be damaged goods, and it's a pity: If this had been 10 or 15 years ago, he'd be the perfect big tent establishment Republican to head the ticket and capitalize on Obama's and the Democrats' weaknesses.
Few pundits now predict the GOP will sweep the House, Senate and the White House.
Republican moderates, centrist Democrats, moderates in the general electorate, independents and centrists may be unhappy with Obama, but they could feel they have limited options on voting day.
Voters will sometimes choose for president someone inept but predictable over someone who appears batty. And my betting is that if trending continues, the least repulsive option won't be one where they see they also have to swallow a big gulp of tea.
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.