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Beyond Party

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Friday, September 17, 2010

Schadenfreude means taking pleasure in the failure of others, which is the Hollywood vocation and, lately, that of Democrats, as well.

When you're part of the party in power and unemployment is hovering near 10 percent, there aren't that many occasions for pleasure. So you can hardly begrudge us the mirth that comes with watching Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell and the rest slug it out.

Could it really be that O'Donnell, the GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate in Delaware, equates looking at porn with adultery and masturbation with sin? Could it be that Alvin Greene is not the most embarrassing major party nominee of the year?

It could. And here's the difference: The GOP could've won in Delaware. Or in Nevada. Or in Colorado.

This is not about the tea party movement, at least not necessarily so. It's about taking politics seriously.

At the core of the tea party movement is the very popular and hardly irresponsible idea that federal spending is out of control, that government has gotten too big, that everything from bailouts to entitlements needs a second look and, potentially, some major cuts.

I don't know whether there's a majority that sees it that way. The devil is in the details, and the details tend to focus on the sacred cows of American politics -- Social Security, Medicare and the mortgage deduction. But certainly there's nothing "nutty" (Rove's description of O'Donnell) about the core platform of the tea party movement. Indeed, by returning to the fiscal conservativism that was the heart of the Reagan message, and by reaching out to those who might disagree with "establishment" Republican positions on such issues as gun control and abortion (which are indeed nutty to a lot of people), the movement not only generates enthusiasm, but also has the potential for greater inclusiveness.

The problem, in short, is not the platform but the people, not ideology but competence and qualifications.

O'Donnell beat former Delaware Gov. Mike Castle because Republican primary voters wanted to send a message to their party -- and to Democrats, the media and the establishment -- that business as usual just won't do. You can talk all you want about the narrow base of primary voters (true enough). But to deny that something real is going on "out there," which is to say outside of Washington, is silly.

Nominating people who are not qualified to do the jobs they're seeking makes no sense, whether it's tea partiers, the GOP or my own party members doing it. Cutting government is a heck of a lot harder than expanding it. Carrying out the tea party platform would require the acumen of a Newt Gingrich and the savvy of a Rove, not to mention the charisma of a Palin.

Palin's problem as John McCain's running mate was not that she is a woman or a conservative, but that she doesn't know a single Supreme Court opinion other than Roe, doesn't read newspapers and still gets stuck on a Founding Father other than George Washington. An overwhelming majority of Americans think she's not qualified to be president. If she's smarter than they think she is, she won't put that to a test.

In the long run, a healthy democracy needs qualified and able people of every party to function effectively. The tea party movement's failure to support candidates who meet that standard may help Democrats avert disaster, but it's hardly a recipe for a strong political system.

"Buck up," Palin told Rove. What does that mean? This isn't a game. It's not a sport. The stakes are too high. I'm not supporting Alvin Greene. Some things go beyond party.

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