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A Mere Pimple on the Trunk of the Elephant

A Commentary by Tony Blankley

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Entitlement reform has become a leading issue in this year's Republican primaries. I don't mean the kind of entitlement reform associated with Medicare or Social Security. I'm referring to the Republican Party's establishment figures and their exaggerated sense of political entitlement.

The most recent example is in Delaware, where despite being outspent 32 to 1, insurgent candidate Christine O'Donnell trumped nine-term GOP Congressman Michael Castle by 65 percent to 35 percent for the GOP Senate nomination.

Castle, who has spent a lifetime as a political incumbent, responded to this humiliating loss with conduct unbecoming a gentleman. Instead of graciously acknowledging defeat and closing ranks with his party's nominee, Castle trashed her. Sniping from his website, Castle attacked O'Donnell as untrustworthy and unfit for office.

By trying to ensure that O'Donnell loses the election, Castle undermines his own party's prospects for a Senate takeover in November. So strong is his sense of entitlement to the Senate nomination that Castle feels justified in being disloyal to the very party he has spent his adult life serving.

If it were only a personal matter, it would be sad to see this once respected politician end his political legacy embittered because the voters foiled his Senate ambitions. But Castle is not the only Delaware GOP establishment figure trying to torpedo the party's nominee. State Party Chairman Tom Ross has lodged a complaint against the O'Donnell campaign and the Tea Party Express for improper coordination. It is as though the insiders see the Republican Party as their private fiefdom.

Nor is the Delaware GOP an aberration. Embattled Republican moderates around the country seem to feel justified in taking actions that could keep Democrats in office rather than lose GOP sinecures to which they feel personally entitled.

In Florida, Republican primary voters jettisoned Governor Charles Crist in favor of conservative challenger Marco Rubio. Jilted, Crist opted to run as an independent, even though splitting the Republican vote could produce a win for Democrats. In Alaska, incumbent GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski has decided to run a hopeless write-in campaign after losing her primary re-election bid to challenger Joe Miller. In Colorado, where tea party-backed outsider Ken Buck beat GOP insider Scott McInnis for the GOP Senate nomination, embittered Republican leaders have been slow to coalesce around the newcomer. Similar dynamics apply in Nevada, where Sharron Angle is running neck and neck against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid according to the latest polls, despite having to contend with a hostile GOP establishment.

The Republican Party's responses in Delaware and other tea party upsets across the country are putting those chapters of the GOP in peril of irrelevancy. 2010 is a moment of profound cultural and political change in America.

In a different season, such petulance might have strategic significance. But not in 2010. These various "moderates" and party operatives will be swept away by the coming storm -- next and last to be seen as post-storm debris hanging undecorously next to old tires and broken awnings. As a party, broadly, the GOP will embrace their new voters and their old principles, and thereby profit from the energized grassroots activists whose efforts would surely flow to a third party next time if thwarted by the Republican establishment this time.

Despite their years of expertise, some Beltway insiders of all varieties -- press, pundits, politicians and strategists -- some friends of mine -- only dimly understand the tea party phenomenon. Spontaneous in its formation and wide-ranging in its composition, the tea party upwelling is the first genuine grassroots movement in American politics in decades.

Strategists talk a lot about grassroots, but the dirty secret in modern politics is that the grassroots have generally been superfluous. What has mattered is message and money. This is true for Democrats and Republicans. No wonder then that many insiders were stunned and perplexed by authentic grassroots activists, hooting at them in town all meetings, organizing caucuses to discuss constitutional principles, holding rallies and protests that weren't decreed by a leader or sanctioned by a hierarchy and descending on Washington by the hundreds of thousands. For the left, it must be particularly terrifying to see the same 21st-century technology and social networking that propelled Obama in 2008 -- and which they felt entitled to as their exclusive domain -- hijacked by opponents of the Obama agenda.

Nothing better illustrates the old world confronting the new than the early threat by Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee insiders to withhold money from O'Donnell's campaign. For insiders, the power of the purse is paramount. But these are new times. Overnight, Internet contributions swelled O'Donnell's war chest from $20,000 cash on hand to more than $1 million -- thus revealing the irrelevancy of the RSCC to the outcome of this contest. No doubt this lapse in judgment by the RSCC fueled the wave of contributions to O'Donnell and, conversely, will cause a corresponding decline in contributions to the GOP House and Senate fundraising arms as voters eager for change bypass party committees and give directly to candidates.

Grassroots activists are sending the GOP a message: "Reform, or perish." Shrewd incumbents like Arizona Sen. John McCain paid heed, shifted right and won.

Others may get short-term satisfaction from making life difficult for their conservative rivals, but will be remembered as a mere temporary pimple on the elephant's trunk.

Sore loser is not much of a political epitaph -- particularly for those "moderates" who have always held themselves out as selfless and better than us mere conviction politicians. This grassroots rising has every potential to endure, evolving into the dominant political party with the power to sweep away irredentist "establishment" Republicans.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington.

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