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What Democrats Can Learn from the Tea Party


Democrats were ecstatic when news broke earlier this month that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) had inconceivably lost his Republican primary to an obscure college professor. But what exactly were they cheering? If elected, Cantor's opponent, a Tea Party extremist who actually ran on the idea that Cantor of all people was too far left, would only make it more difficult for Democrats who already complain that right-wing obstructionists are ruining Washington. More to the point, instead of gloating about Cantor's well-earned demise, they should be asking why their own base is so comparatively ineffective when it comes to party politics.

Politics aside, one can't help but be impressed by Dave Brat's victory. He won the sort of race that political conventional wisdom said would have been a waste of time, were the goal to do anything more than advance an issue or two, or in the spirit of democracy, give voters at least a nominal choice at the polls. Indeed, Brat himself seemed utterly shocked by his victory, which polling data had failed to suggest as a possibility right up until Election Day. After all, his opponent was one of the most influential and deeply-entrenched members of Congress. Cantor had outspent him 26-1, and in many peoples' eyes, was poised to make a run at John Boehner's role as House Speaker after an easy reelection. Suffice it to say, there were much softer targets than Congressman Cantor.

The most effective angle of Brat's attack appears to have been Cantor's seeming willingness to at least consider an immigration compromise that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who had been brought here as small children without a say in the matter, provided they'd been well behaved during their time as residents. That being said, he didn't work to get such a compromise done – in fact he worked hard to make sure a vote on the matter didn't come to the floor.

It didn't matter how lukewarm his support might have been or that immigration reform is considered dead until at least 2015; Brat was able to capitalize on Cantor's supposed support for “amnesty for illegals.” Helped along by a truly terrible Cantor campaign and extremely low turnout, he now has a very good shot at heading to Washington as a member of the 114th United States Congress.

I've heard Democrats claim victory on many different levels; from the idea that Cantor's loss is proof that the Republican Party is collapsing under the weight of its own conservatism, to the notion that they used Virginia's open primary to help ensure that the least-electable Republican is on the ballot in November. What I haven't heard them explain is why only Republicans seem to be able to rally enough of their base to overcome massive financial disadvantages and create change, even when it's said to be impossible.

Can you imagine someone unseating Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid or even someone like Steny Hoyer because they didn't fight hard enough to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, wouldn't push for universal health care or didn't do enough to prevent the expansion of the Keystone Pipeline? Can you even imagine them elevating someone like Senator Elizabeth Warren to a plane from which she could compete with Hillary for the 2016 Presidential nomination the way the Tea Party elevated Michele Bachmann? I can't. Instead, Democrats seem so obsessed with the elusive independent/undecided/moderate voting bloc they are always so convinced is the key to victory, that more often than not, they are trying to hush rather than invigorate their base, lest they send some moderate to the increasingly right-wing GOP.

There's an old saying in politics that the Republican Party fears its base, while the Democratic Party despises theirs. Who else are you going to vote for? they always seem to ask. Convinced that they'll just be “throwing their vote away” by voting outside the establishment, Democratic voters too often just get in line and check the block next to the most bland, vanilla, least-likely-to-offend candidate their party has been able to find. Meanwhile, Republicans demand a candidate who truly represents their political outlook – even when it's way out on the fringe.

If the Democrats take anything from Brat's victory, it should be that giving your members what they want often works. Stop trying to appease and start trying to inspire. Those to the right of your tent aren't coming in, and if you don't give your voters something genuinely exciting to turn out for in November, history says you'll be licking your wounds November 5, after yet another dismal mid-term.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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