I like Paul Waldman, but he really needs to get out of the Beltway more often if he’s going to tell Chris McDaniel how the tea party works.

Chris McDaniel wanted to go to the Senate, and the people who supported him wanted that, too. But just by making the runoff, McDaniel served his purpose for the tea party, which was to maintain the appropriate level of fear among Republican elected officials. After some primaries in which Republicans easily dispatched challenges from the right, Eric Cantor’s loss and Cochran’s near-loss have put the fear of the right back into Republicans in Congress. So for the tea party, it’s mission accomplished. At this point, the tiny chance that McDaniel might actually prevail in a lawsuit doesn’t make it worth their while to fight for, particularly given that the longer he keeps up this battle, the crazier he looks — and by extension, the less reasonable he makes his supporters look.

I’m not saying that everything is about appearances for the tea party and that they don’t have policy goals, because they do. But they understand that electing committed tea partiers is only one way to achieve those goals. Keeping ordinary Republicans terrified is another way, and almost as effective.

Yes, his supporters looked so reasonable when they were taking pictures of Thad Cochran’s wife in her nursing home bed, getting locked inside courthouses, and jamming conference calls. McDaniel looked so reasonable himself when he spoke to neoconfederate groups and espoused John Bircher conspiracy theories, didn’t he? Surely these people really, really care what we think of their mental health!

Sarcasm aside, I know a little bit about McDaniel’s supporters, who are mostly culture warriors of one stripe or another, and I recognize the religious fervor in their angry denunciations. When they demonize and delegitimize Cochran, it is because they have actually come to think of him as the devil, and the fact that he won with black votes merely confirms their worst fears. The emerging schism in Mississippi must be understood as a doctrinal crisis. Waldman only understands Rome’s point of view, whereas these folks are quite willing to have a Protestant Reformation if necessary, and attempts to marginalize them only feed their sense of justification. Note how McDaniel supporter Mark Mayfield’s suicide has turned him into a martyr.

Waldman writes for the Washington Post; his newspaper is a fixture in the nation’s capital. But the tea party is insanely angry at pretty much everyone and everything in Washington, including the Post. Heartfelt grassroots conviction, not political triangulation, provides the rationale of this political calculus. Tea party activists don’t really care if Republicans win the Senate this year; they would of course love to see that, but it isn’t their chief concern.

What they really want are for the Republicans that are in the Senate to be as extremely anti-Obama, anti-immigration, and anti-liberal as possible. To that end, they will gladly put losers like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell and Rick Santorum on the ballot rather than meekly submit to another “RINO” like Thad Cochran. If you go to their town halls and events and campaign headquarters in the hinterland, you will hear the tea party say it themselves: they would rather vote for “real” conservatives, even if they ultimately lose ten Senate seats to elect one more Ted Cruz.

And why not? Ever since Ronald Reagan left the White House, “real” conservatives have been declaring the advent of “real” Republicans. It has become a truism of our era that Ronald Reagan would not be conservative enough for the tea party, but this was a gradual shift, not a seismic one. McDaniel is shrewd enough to understand that his reward will not come from the national Republican Party, but the “real” Republican Party that has been agitating for preeminence for so long.


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