Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Wave goodbye to members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Doing nothing has taken a lot out of them, so they have left Washington for five weeks of rest, relaxation and campaigning in the hope that voters will return them to office to do more of the same.
This is especially the case for the large Tea Party contingent among the several score first-term Republicans. They set out to change Washington but settled for simply paralyzing it.
They repealed Obama’s health-care law 33 times but didn’t change one word of its 2,700 or so pages. They stopped the Grand Bargain over the debt and deficit even at the cost of exposing Speaker John Boehner as a scaredy cat. They haven’t been able to curb the excesses of Wall Street, keep the debt ceiling from rising, or end government subsidies to NPR or Amtrak -- but by God, they can bring the capital to its knees. Nearly everyone hates Congress (well, about 80 percent of Americans do) yet the Tea Party -- fortified by Sarah Palin, Senator Jim DeMint and the Club for Growth -- is about to do for the Senate what it did to the House.
Look at what has happened so far in the Republican primaries: Only the purest, most virginal conservatives are being chosen as the party’s standard bearers in November.
Last week, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who alerted reporters that he was visiting a Chick-fil-A the day before the election, overwhelmed Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, the veteran establishment candidate, to win the nomination to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Dewhurst’s sins? He was Governor Rick Perry’s right-hand man and an occasional sponsor of bipartisan legislation. The most effective ad against Dewhurst accused him of being a moderate.
Three months ago conservative Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock beat six-term incumbent Senator Richard Lugar, the compromiser who’d forgotten his roots. Nebraska State Senator (and rancher) Deb Fischer beat Attorney General Jon Bruning in Nebraska in an upset to go up against Bob Kerrey, the former governor and senator, on Election Day.
Each victor campaigned against Washington insiders who had impermissible contact with the enemy. Nominating your most conservative candidate in the primary is more satisfying than letting another weak one get in. And if these candidates do get elected, inactivity is preferable to approving legislation that even contemplates the possibility that any American could get so much as a food stamp he is not entitled to.
Take Connecticut, the Yankee bastion of village squares and town-hall meetings. In the race to replace retiring Senator Joe Lieberman, the purist wing of the Republican Party prefers entrepreneur Linda McMahon, who has never run anything but a soft-porn wrestling empire, over former Representative Chris Shays, who was close to former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Reaching across the aisle from time to time -- he voted for campaign-finance reform, for instance -- helped lead to Shays’s defeat in 2008.
At the time, the loss left the House without a single Republican from New England. McMahon first ran for Senate in 2010, when her primary victory over former Representative Rob Simmons, a respected moderate with two Bronze Stars, essentially ceded the race to the Democrats. Now, despite losing to Richard Blumenthal two years ago, McMahon is getting a second chance.
She won the party endorsement in May, but Shays managed to scrape together enough votes to challenge her for the nomination. The primary election is next Tuesday. It will take a miracle for Shays to defeat a self-funded candidate blanketing the state with softly lit ads that present McMahon as a job creator. Airbrushed out is the fact that she got wealthy in part by making professional wrestling even more vulgar. To the play-acting in the ring, she added storylines involving necrophilia and intrafamily violence starring her husband, Vince, and daughter, Stephanie.
All in all, it’s the type of program that used to get you investigated by Congress -- not welcomed to it. The House looked into World Wrestling Entertainment after one wrestler killed his family and hanged himself in 2007, leaving a stash of steroids behind, because of concern that WWE had not taken adequate steps to address the use of drugs.
This is what the Grand Old Party has come to, as other primaries in Wisconsin and Missouri threaten to reward insurgents. In Connecticut, a poll in June shows McMahon leading Shays, 59 percent to 30 percent. If McMahon and a few other candidates win in November, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could become majority leader but actually lose power: Boehner, his weakened counterpart in the lower chamber, doesn’t lead his troops so much as try to keep from being run over by them.
The Senate, as George Washington is supposed to have told Thomas Jefferson, was designed in part to calm the tempers and passions of the House, just as a saucer is used to cool off hot tea. If the saucer itself is scalding, then the whole brew will be too hot to sip.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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