I’m beginning to (finally) learn an important lesson: if you hear the words “conventional wisdom,” run screaming.
Yesterday, in the cities and cornfields of Nebraska, an interesting GOP Senate primary ended with the unlikeliest of victories for dark-horse candidate Deb Fischer, currently a member of the Nebraska State Senate. In winning she upset not one, but two candidates, both of whom were outpolling her until quite recently.
The “conventional wisdom” was that the race would be fought between the “establishment” candidate (which, I suppose, meant the one funded by the GOP party machinery), Jon Bruner and the exceptionally conservative Don Stenberg, who had the backing of no less that Jim DeMint, the Tea Party poster boy. But Fischer picked up endorsements from Sarah Palin (a big deal in Tea Party circles) and her husband Todd (who cares?) and that, apparently, carried enough clout to change the balance. That, and the fact that Jon and Don were busy battling each other (and Dem incumbent Bob Kerrey) rather than Fischer.
When the votes were counted Fischer had a 5-point victory over Bruning (erasing a sixteen-point deficit in less than ten days), with Stenberg a distant third. So much for the “conventional wisdom.”
What happened to the script? That's what I want to know. I fully expected a consistent Tea Party message backing one candidate, attempting, in all fervor, to unseat someone more or less moderate (at least relatively speaking). That's sort of what happened, I suppose, only not really.
So here’s what I’m thinking: maybe the “conventional wisdom” that defines the Tea Party is wrong. Really wrong. That narrative has two simple tracks, one for the right and one for the left. The one on the right tells the story of a nearly Libertarian view of government where no tax is a good tax, ever. The one on the left tells the story of a bunch of racist and misogynistic misfits who believe we’re on a collision course with Soviet style socialism/fascism. Those narratives are comforting, simple and, apparently, wrong (or, at least, terribly incomplete).
What Nebraska's results say to me is that what the Tea Party is really about—underneath those narratives—may just be something different. It may be more about that old chestnut “by the people and for the people” than it is about anything else. It may be more about getting rid of the clichés: the old boy’s club; the lifetime Senators, the business-as-usual backroom dealings. The results are quite assuredly unpredictable—it means at least some clearly unqualified people might end up getting the nod somewhere along the way. And those other narratives are still there; as with any movement, crazies abound. But if the Tea Party is really something different, something with a solid core beneath its hazily constructed narrative veneers, then I’ve got news for the Democrats and liberals out there.
You’re in serious trouble.
Why? Because you have no equivalent. If the Tea Party is truly about insiders and outsiders then, well, you’ve got no outsiders. You’ve got the usual suspects with the usual stories. Some of those stories may be good ones—that’s a different posting for a different day—but if the Tea Party is about—wait for it—hope and change, then it’s a whole new ballgame.
Or, as in the case of Nebraska, a whole new cornfield.