Paul Nitze: Reading the Tea Leaves |

Paul Nitze: Reading the Tea Leaves

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Ken Buck was feeling his oats last night. He’s confident enough in his Tea Party mojo to throw a few bombs at Sarah Palin, the reigning queen of Beltway bashers. Seems Palin’s coming into Denver on Saturday to throw her support to Jane Norton, Buck’s opponent in the Republican Senate primary.

You might think Buck would hold his fire. But with Kentucky’s Rand Paul notching a win on Tuesday night, Buck senses that he’s got enough grassroots support from the Tea Partiers and 9/12ers to play offense. He’s going for the jugular, hoping to deal a death blow to Norton by talking up Tuesday’s results, and by having the stage at this weekend’s state GOP assembly to himself. Norton’s skipping the assembly and petitioning onto the ballot.

Hold off on the condolence letters to Norton, or that other “establishment” Republican candidate, Scott McInnis. Can’t they take comfort that it’s a Republican year? They’re both still favored for the nomination, albeit barely in Norton’s case. Once they get into the general, the grassroots will turn their attention to those free-spending Democrats.

Not exactly. As a Dem, I sure hope that Colorado’s Republican hopefuls took comfort from Tuesday’s results. If they did, they’re deluding themselves. Tuesday’s results were a bucket of ice water on the heads of incumbents, but they weren’t a validation of the Republican platform.

It’s not that this will be a Democratic year. Far from it. Democrats wake up today in the same place they woke up on Monday morning – poised to drop five to seven seats in the Senate and 20 to 30 seats in the House. Those numbers come from current polling results on a generic congressional ballot, a predictor that’s been validated through numerous cycles.

Congress’s approval rating is now so low that political scientists have started a cottage industry of books and articles trying to explain voter sentiments. Only 22 percent of Americans say they approve of the job Congress is doing. Hence the desire to throw the bums out.

But that top-line number hides the more interesting phenomenon, which is the gap between voter sentiment and the Republican platform. Polling suggests that voters are primarily motivated by unemployment numbers we haven’t seen in 30 years and prolonged fiscal irresponsibility at the federal level.

Ken Buck and every other anti-establishment candidate (Dems included) would do better to turn off CNN and start reading up on the recent parliamentary elections in the U.K. British voters failed to provide any of the three major parties with a majority, leaving the Conservatives’ David Cameron to negotiate with Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Cameron could have tried to lead a minority government, but he took the harder step of forming an alliance with Nick Clegg of the Lib Dems. Brits were surprisingly enthused about the arrangement – nearly four in five supported the alliance, including a chunk who voted Labour. Had the story coming out of the U.K. been a straightforward Tory resurgence, then voters would’ve balked at an alliance with the Lib Dems. Instead they embraced a strange marriage between two relative youngsters in Clegg and Cameron.

A similar, if not identical, trend’s at work here. We haven’t seen this kind of dissatisfaction with both parties since the Gilded Age, which birthed a few minor parties and radicalized Republicans via one Teddy Roosevelt. The yearnings of the Tea Party faithful aside, nothing suggests this moment will produce a full-fledged competitor to the two major parties.

But on the margins we are seeing a rise in both independents, like Charlie Christ in Florida, and in candidates who associate with a party, but don’t embrace it. Rand Paul falls into the latter category. And that wouldn’t be happening if Republicans had the answer to what ails the American voter. So we head into this fall looking at a fractured and confusing political landscape. Elections will be intensely local, driven by the authenticity and substance of individual candidates.

Want to know why McInnis and Norton aren’t capitalizing on the anti-incumbent fervor? Unlike Buck, who telegraphs his (wrong-headed) convictions, Norton and McInnis come across as empty suits. Nothing they’re saying is resonating. Recent polls show that John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet have reasonable shots at winning this fall, despite generic numbers that should have them going down by double-digits.

We know that this will be a Republican year, albeit one in which convincing Democrats will squeak by. What we don’t know is what comes next. One of the parties must take on the looming fiscal tsunami. If Democrats can convince voters they’ll tighten the belt coming out of the recession, 2012 will look very different.