Sitting in the crowd at MacEwan Hall on Wednesday Nov. 3 was a little strange. The day after historic losses by the Democrats in the midterm elections, Howard Dean and Fred Thompson addressed assembled students, business people and policy wonks. What they had to say was a little unexpected. Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee and a 2008 Republican presidential nominee, was not the jubilant individual one would have expected after so epic a victory. On the contrary, it was former Vermont governor and Democratic chairman Howard Dean who was optimistic that compromise was possible in America.
Despite Thompson's regular stoicism, I certainly expected a little more positivity from him when discussing the election that returned control of the House of Representatives to his party as well as providing a severe blow to the Obama administration, but his comments can best be described as pessimistic. Perhaps it's because he can see the difficulties ahead for his party.
Elected in the so-called Gingrich Revolution of 1994 (like 2010, a huge Republican midterm election win) Thompson is a veteran of the horse trading that characterized the Republican-dominated congresses of the Clinton administration. Indeed, he would remember that despite many similar promises of change in the practices of government (much like those heard Tuesday) the GOP ended up making deals with President Bill Clinton. Yet, the rhetoric of the Tea Party this election was 1994-on-steroids. Replete with promises to "repeal Obama-care," make deep cuts to government programs and "reform Washington," as well as a healthy dose of conspiracy theories about Obama's religion and birthplace -- Tea Party rallies often degenerated into "Barack Hussein Obama-athons" -- the Tea Party is not a pragmatic movement.
In 1994, Democrats and Republicans were able to find some common ground. Welfare reform was a major accomplishment, cuts were made to many government programs and deficits eventually became surpluses. Yet the 2010 Republican wave is different. The Tea Party grew as much from dissatisfaction with President Obama as it did Republicans. Tea Partiers railed against both parties and many Tea Party challengers unseated Republican Party favourites in primaries. This is not a cohesive Republican party.
Thompson also said last Wednesday that he was doubtful the two major parties could get past mutual demagoguery and make progress on the legislation that America's heavy debt load and huge entitlement programs necessitate. Yet will the parties even get to the point of being able to compromise? Already the signs point to no.
Despite the negligible influence that the Tea Party truly has in the House or Senate, it seems that the extreme nature of their arguments and their no-compromise approach has resonated with millions of Americans. This makes their consolidation into a larger Republican coalition unlikely. In fact, just as Rep. John Boehner, the presumptive Republican Speaker of the House, was talking about working with President Obama and getting to the problems of the nation, Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota, the Tea Party caucus leader in the House and one of the least compromising Tea Partiers, was testing the waters about a possible run for a House leadership position. Though it's unlikely that Bachmann will win the votes necessary to take a position as a leader in the House, this is surely not the last time the Tea Party will try to exert its strength in the new Republican majority. And the GOP will have to give them something, after all much of their gains on Tuesday can be attributed to Tea Party excitement.
The GOP will certainly need to consolidate power and get the Bachmanns of the world onside before they can begin to present a platform to the American people. As Thompson's words on Wednesday illustrated, getting politicians in Washington to agree on anything is a difficult and often impossible proposition. But the GOP has to find a way. If they ignore the Tea Party, they are in danger of losing an increasingly mobilized group that currently supports them, perhaps even to a third-party -- a nightmare scenario for the GOP. If they embrace them wholeheartedly, it is unlikely they will make any progress a la 1994 and will have no shot a 2012 presidential victory. It seems that they may not even get to a place where Gov. Dean's optimism can be possible -- a GOP civil war may have to be fought first. Either way, Fred Thompson's pessimism seems justified.