BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS
by Meg White
The results of the spate of primary elections Tuesday were plenty of fodder for the anti-incumbent crowd. Progressives rejoiced at Sen. Blanche Lincoln's setback as well as Sen. Arlen Specter's defeat.
And the tea party? Well, somehow they got a mandate out of it. Though he's not quite in Washington yet, tea party candidate Rand Paul won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Kentucky. His interpretation of the win over GOP establishment candidate Trey Grayson was that he now has carte blanche to rule the country as he sees fit.
"The tea party movement is huge. The mandate of our victory tonight is huge," Paul said in his acceptance speech. "The tea party movement is about saving the country from a mountain of debt that is devouring our country and I think could lead to chaos."
After getting past the idea that Paul might really think the country is on the verge of anarchy due to the national debt, my second thought was that he might want to think twice before using an electorally-loaded word like "mandate." After all, the past two presidential elections have proven disastrous for the term.
George W. Bush's 2004 non-mandate "mandate" nearly became evidence that he understood that his first election to the White House had been stolen for him. It was as if, after winning 51 percent of the vote (and also having "had more people voting against him than any winning candidate for president in history"), he could finally rule legitimately.
And though the media recognized President Obama's "mandate for change" in his landslide victory over Sen. John McCain in 2008, that sense of political entitlement was not embraced in the White House and thus did not carry over to 2009.
Furthermore, the word "mandate" in the traditional political sense is generally reserved for those who have actually won an election, not primary victors.
It might appear as if Paul was being linguistically sloppy. But if you read into some of the background story here, I think it's clear Paul meant mandate in an entirely different sense of the word. We'll call it a "Randate."
After they helped him win the primary, Paul said that he "doesn't see the tea party really becoming a political party." He added that he's been talking for weeks to the guy that the media has been portraying as Paul's arch-enemy -- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- about unifying his tea party forces with the GOP.
The only mandate that this really provides is one of inclusion of the moderate, moneyed elements of the tea party movement into the Republican Party. That is what allowed the heavyweights in the GOP to come out with a message of unity after the results became clear (or weeks before, as Paul revealed).
Ideologically, Paul is a far cry from his father, Libertarian hero Ron, and has none of the bitter history with the Republican Party that the elder Dr. Paul has garnered over the years.
In fact, as the election whiz kid Nate Silver puts it, this was not the true tea party vs. establishment test:
...for all his libertarian and tea-party dressing, Paul in fact ran on a fairly conventional, conservative platform. He's pro-life, anti-gay marriage, anti-immigration ... there are only the faintest hints of libertarianism here. This was probably a good thing for him because Kentucky, which has traditionally been socially conservative but economically moderate, is pretty much kitty-corner to the libertarian side of the political quadrant. This was actually very clever, in a lot of ways -- Paul's last name (and decision to affiliate himself with the tea party) gained him national attention and fundraising and earned media, but to people in Kentucky, he ought to have been a very comfortable choice who was somewhat more fresh-faced than his rival. The branded product beat the generic one.
What a surprise. The conventional wisdom on election results fails to accurately portray reality yet again. Sadly, that conventional wisdom may prove to be more important in the healing of the GOP-TEA rift. As Silver points out, Paul has the bona fides of a classic tea party candidate but is totally embraceable for Republican Party leadership.
If this primary result can be interpreted to be a mandate in any way, it's that the tea party has nominated Paul to be their ambassador in the coming Washington merger between the two conservative factions. If he's smart, Paul will keep that message of unity to himself.
BUZZFLASH NEWS ANALYSIS