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August 01, 2012 4:47 PM Everybody Loves Tea Party Stories

By Jonathan Bernstein

Some quick notes on Ted Cruz’s big win in the Texas Senate primary.

First, it’s a big defeat for the old, old, Senate. David Dewhurst would have begun his Senate term at age 67; Ted Cruz will be 42. Everything else aside, I think it’s very good for the Senate to get younger.

Second, see Ed Kilgore’s column about the race, as well as my post the other day: one of the striking things here was the absence of any policy content to the Tea Party insurrection here.

One more: I thought Steve Kornacki’s review of Tea Party successes was very good. One bit does have me thinking, however:

Other GOP primaries this year have had the same effect. Dick Lugar’s lopsided loss to Richard Mourdock in Indiana is the most obvious example, and Deb Fischer’s surprise win in Nebraska probably qualifies too. Orrin Hatch’s easy win over Dan Liljenquist in Utah counts too; Hatch seemed an obvious Tea Party target at the beginning of the cycle, but moved so loudly and so decisively to the right that he managed to head off a full-scale insurrection.

What strikes me is that there’s a tendency — and I’m part of this too — to buy the interpretation that absolutely everything is a Tea Party victory. No? Mourock/Lugar certainly was, but Fischer wasn’t really a Tea Party champion at all, and Hatch, of course, was a Tea Party defeat. And yet: Kornacki is correct, I think, about the effects of each of these contests.

I’d say that a lot of this has to do with incentives and institutions. The incentives that matter are that virtually everyone has an interest in portraying these things as Tea Party wins. Tea Partiers themselves, of course, want to show their strength. Liberals and Democrats, meanwhile, have an incentive to portray the GOP as extremist. The press, meanwhile, likes simple story lines, and Tea Party vs. “Establishment” is a simple one, even if it doesn’t actually make sense in many of these cases.

As far as institutions: the one that matters here is probably the Republican partisan press, which mostly, from what I can see, has gone along with the Tea Party vs. Establishment story. Why does that matter? Because a lot of smart reporters and others assume that the GOP partisan press is well-informed about such things, and take their cues from it.

The result is that we all wind up seeing the world that way, whether or not it was originally true. But because Republican politicians also wind up seeing the world that way, for the same reasons, that’s the story that turns out to be important whether or not it was originally accurate or not.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.
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