This is a heavyweight discussion. First David Brooks took the ramparts of the New York Times editorial pages to offer his analysis of the Tea Party movement. Then, Jonah Goldberg offered his analysis of Brooks in National Review's blog The Corner.
A couple of things. These two--along with Mark Steyn--represent for me a sort of Holy Trinity of conservative thinkers. Day in and day out, Steyn, Brooks and Goldberg can be counted on to pen some of the most insightful, readable, and analytical views of policy and social events to be found. Brooks is brilliant and prep schoolish--and bit too cozy with Obamanism. Goldberg is a giant of conservative thinking, but I think his Puckishness sometimes causes him to be taken less seriously than others--though a reading of Liberal Fascism should cure even the toughest critic of charges that Goldberg is unserious. And Steyn--he's simply in a class by himself.
Brooks' piece on the Tea Party movement upon first reading made eminent sense to me, and it helped put me in touch with some of the basic, deep down, questions I have about their approach to policy. Had Goldberg not then made his commentary, I would likely have simply put a check in the box that Brooks had once again fairly well encapsulated my way of thinking. But Goldberg does a great job of standing Brooks' argument on its head. Whereas Brooks wrote an article showing the similarity of the New Left of the 60s with the Tea Party movement of today, Goldberg does just as admirable a job of staking out the differences--which are important, and redound to the benefit of the Tea Partiers.
Here's the bottom line for me--both of them are right as far as their arguments go, and I will consider myself better informed for having read them. That said, the real question for me is the extent to which the Tea Party movement will impact the character of the Republican Party. Not the Conservative Movement mind you....but the Republican Party. While there are conservatives in the Tea Party movement, and some of its basic instincts are conservative, it is not an abidingly conservative impulse. It is populist, and populism knows no ideological bounds--it speaks largely and simply to its own requirements. In our two-party system, the Tea Party movement is far more likely to (and has already done so) find its impact within the Republican Party--and I have to wonder if that impact will make the party more or less electable in upcoming contests.
At this point, the Tea Party movement seems to have little or no interaction with social questions (abortion, gay rights). If it manages to remain devoted to questions of fiscal restraint and good governance, I think the Tea Partiers will strengthen the Republican Party. If for some reason, the Tea Party movement takes on a social component more reminiscent of the Religious Right of the late 70's and early 80's, I fear it will have little positive impact and potentially negative effects.