Papering Over the Republican Divide

Convention speakers try gamely to sell voters on what the GOP isn't offering


In an occasionally raucous afternoon and evening with more unspoken material than a Hemingway novel, the most telling moment might have been the most silent. Rookie U.S. Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz of Texas tried to weave the GOP's grassroots upstarts–by far the most promising and passionate people inside the Republican National Convention–into the fabric of the party, while the party regulars sat, stone-faced, on their hands.

"Since 2010, something extraordinary has been happening, something that has dumbfounded the chattering class," Cruz said, studiously avoiding giving name to that thing (hint: rhymes with "pee tardy"). "It began here in Florida in 2010. In Utah, Kentucky, Pennsylvania. Was repeated this summer in Indiana. Nebraska. Wisconsin. And this past month, in the Lone Star State, Texas."

Normally at major-party conventions, including elsewhere last night, shout-outs to state delegations are guaranteed applause-generators. But delegates, who hours before had to endure a series of rowdy skirmishes between the dominant GOP establishment and the more vociferous Ron Paul and Tea Party factions, knew that Cruz wasn't pulling state names out of a hat.

Florida in 2010 backed Tea Party insurgent Marco Rubio in the Senate primary (and later into the Senate itself), thus driving opponent and then-governor Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party. Pennsylvania, too, saw a more reliably ideological conservative (Pat Toomey) chase a long-distrusted moderate (Arlen Specter) out of the party and into unplanned retirement. There probably aren't many 2012 RNC delegates who regret these outcomes.

But the Utah uprising replaced a perfectly Republican incumbent senator, Bob Bennett (who received the endorsement of Mitt Romney), with a man, Mike Lee, who wants to do such atypically Republican things like roll back the Patriot Act, privatize the government's mortgage-finance monopoly, and tackle Social Security reform forthrightly. Kentucky is where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had his handpicked candidate in his home state humbled by the son of Ron Paul, who in his general-election victory speech never mentioned the Republican Party even once (the Tea Party, in an inverse of Cruz's speech last night, was valorized early and often).

And Indiana is where that revolutionary impulse of 2010 continued producing incumbent-Republican scalps in 2012, with the primarying of longtime U.S. Senator Richard Lugar in May by a candidate, Richard Mourdock, who questions the constitutionality of entitlements and thinks Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) doesn't go far enough in restraining government.

These Tea Party candidates Ted Cruz referred to (though not by name) are not George W. Bush Republicans. They're not Mitt Romney Republicans, either, which presents the GOP with a long-foreseeable conundrum: How do you sell a party to independents, let alone deliver the people who voted in the primaries, when there's an important philosophical gap between the limited-government grassroots and a top of the ticket who campaigned on "rebuilding" the military, restoring Medicare cuts, and shoring up Social Security?

The answer last night was: pretend that there's no gap at all. So Ted Cruz, after drawing pin-drop silence at his roll-call of Tea Party-rocked states, asserts unconvincingly that "We are seeing a great awakening. A national movement of We the People. Brought together by what unites us: A shared love of liberty." And keynote speaker Chris Christie, the combative governor of New Jersey who himself embodies the schism between fiscally conservative rhetoric and reality, pretends that the Republican Party is actually in favor of cutting government.

"We believe in telling hard-working families the truth about our country's fiscal realities," Christie said. "Telling them what they already know–the math of federal spending doesn't add up. With $5 trillion in debt added over the last four years, we have no other option but to make the hard choices, cut federal spending and fundamentally reduce the size of government."

In fact, the Ryan budget–the closest thing the GOP has as a blueprint for the future–does not make the hard choice of cutting federal spending, ever. What passes for the party's acceptable fiscal conservatism doesn't even dare scale back a federal government that has doubled in nominal cost since George W. Bush took office.

Christie, who was otherwise entertaining and mostly effective, then gave away the game by changing from his gruff Jersey-guy patter to a World Wrestling Federation-style carnival bark when delivering this howler of a line: "We have a nominee who will tell us the truth and who will lead with conviction!"

On the contrary: Mitt Romney won the nomination by running away from the truth of making hard choices. He vows vaguely to cut spending, yet none of his proposals–especially those tethered to the primary budget engines of military and entitlements–put a dent in the federal government's runaway spending problem.

The growing Tea Party caucus and lingering Ron Paul remnant know all this, which is why they spent months looking in vain for Anyone But Mitt. Yesterday, Romney returned the favor by rewriting the party's rules in an attempt to keep the grassroots at bay. It was the proverbial insult after the injury, reminding everyone who pays attention that the upper hand belongs to those who pretend they want to cut government. As a member of the Oklahoma delegation told Reason.tv, "The party's fractured. This was completely unnecessary. And it's ridiculous."