One of the most telling comments by a victorious Republican on Nov. 2 was that of Florida's new U.S. Senator, Marco Rubio, who came out of nowhere to upend the GOP's establishment candidate, Gov. Charlie Crist. Rubio is one of the Tea Party's more attractive faces, but he also understands better than most the Tea Party's true impact on politics — and the Republican Party.
"We make a grave mistake if we believe that tonight these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party," Rubio said near the outset of his victory speech. "What they are is a second chance — a second chance for Republicans to be what they said they were going to be not so long ago."
Rubio's comment was cited a week later in New Orleans at the second annual summit of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) at Tulane University. Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who conducted the first post-midterm voter survey with Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg for the BPC, described Rubio as "a rising star with a foot in both camps" — meaning both the Tea Party and the Republican Party. The context of Ayres' comment was that the GOP should not misinterpret the results of Nov. 2, particularly when it comes to plotting its strategy after the new Congress takes office.
Greenberg agrees. "It's remarkable how low the esteem is of both parties," he said.
I don't mean to throw cold water on the GOP's victory, which will stand as one of the greatest comebacks in modern American politics. But it will count for nothing if those results are misinterpreted and the opportunity to lead — via compromise — is squandered.
The survey by Ayres and Greenberg showed that Independents, not a bigger than normal GOP turnout, drove the Republican victory on Nov. 2. Those same Independents voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in 2006.
The survey included interviews with 1,000 voters nationwide on Nov. 2-3. Its margin of error was plus-or-minus 3.1 percent.
So what happens now? Does the Tea Party stay together? Do its followers shut down government, as Republicans did in 1994 (with disastrous results for the GOP)? If they compromise, where do they bend?
"The Tea Party is not a party, it's a state of mind," noted Kate Zernike, a New York Times reporter whose book, Boiling Mad, offered the first independent insights into the Tea Party phenomenon.
Republican pollster Ayres agrees: "Independents say they want things to get done." Thus, the GOP — with or without Tea Party support — runs a great risk in just saying "no" for the next two years. Republican leaders, who gathered to plot their return to power even before Barack Obama took his oath of office in 2009, need to convene once again to figure out how their party will show that it is ready to govern — and to work with Democrats to get things done.
It won't be easy. Both Ayres and Greenberg noted the survey found GOP voters less willing to compromise.
"Republicans are more adamant than Democrats that their party should stick to their core principles," Ayres noted. By a margin of 64 to 32 percent, Republican voters say that to win in the future "the Republican Party needs to be more supportive of its core principles." Democratic voters say their party should stick to its core principles by 50 percent to 44 percent, indicating less intractability.
Most important of all, Independents believe both parties should move more to the center.
The GOP has every right to savor its victory, but starting in January, the people who gave the party that victory will be watching to see if anybody in power was paying attention to Rubio on the night of Nov. 2.