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Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s surprise election was not an actual victory for the tea party. While it was an important symbolic triumph for the small-government movement, electing liberal Republicans is almost precisely the opposite of what is necessary for the tea party to see any positive legislative action toward its goals.

The defeat of veteran Utah Sen. Robert Bennett in the Republican primary is another matter entirely. Despite being an 88 percent party-line voter and possessing an 84 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and a 98 percent rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bennett was soundly rejected by Utah Republicans. He was defeated by not one, but two candidates, which underlines the degree to which the primary voters have rejected not only the current administration’s approach to the financial crisis, but the Republican Party elite’s response as well.

For as long as I can remember, the big-government faction of the Republican Party has expertly toyed with the small-government portion of the party and successfully managed conservative dissatisfaction with the status quo. Every four years, “the most important election ever” is declared, and the prospect of a Democratic bogeyman is raised to scare the limited government legions into supporting the lesser of two evils. This process is at its most visible in the presidential elections, but it has arguably been even more effective at the congressional level.

But the Big Government Republicans overplayed their hand in 2008. The dire threats of tanks in the streets and cats and dogs living together notwithstanding, it was impossible to miss the significance of George Bush, Henry Paulson and John McCain standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in defense of Wall Street and a continuation of the finance-government axis that has bankrupted the federal government as well as states like California and Illinois and national governments like Greece.

Due to their past success in permitting the small government forces to blow off steam without actually accomplishing anything, Republican leaders have still failed to recognize the new political reality that is now upon them. That they do not is easy to see in the bait-and-switch they pulled last week on the American people, as the Senate passed Sen. Sanders’ one-time, sweep-it-under-the-table fake audit of the Federal Reserve as a replacement for Rep. Ron Paul’s bill to actually inform both Congress and the American people of what the Fed is doing with their money besides guaranteeing profit to Goldman Sachs and bailing out Greece’s bondholders.

Nor does the media. Consider this editorial by the Salt Lake Tribune, in which the newspaper pleaded with Republican delegates to “cash in” their “investment” in the incumbent senator rather than kicking him out of office.

“But why send a rookie to Washington when we have an incumbent who not only knows the players, but knows how the game is played?”
– “Saving Bob Bennett,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 5, 2010

What the media and the Republican Party leadership fail to understand is that Americans are done with the game. They are beginning to understand that the Republicans are no more on their side than are the Democrats, and they don’t want more politicians who know how to play them.

Bennett’s defeat is an encouraging sign that the supporters of small government are beginning to recognize the push me – pull you game. But one positive sign doesn’t mean that the tea party will be successful; efforts to co-opt the movement began almost as soon as Republicans realized that it wasn’t going to disappear as quickly as Ross Perot. It must be expected that at least a few of the tea party-endorsed candidates will prove treacherous once safely ensconced in office and will cheerfully abandon their tea-party principles in much the same way that Sen. Bennett abandoned his previous commitment to term limits.

And the fact that many leading tea partiers are so economically illiterate that they cannot connect the dots between waging multiple wars on distant continents and a big and intrusive government tends to indicate that the movement will be successfully co-opted and neutralized by neo-tea partiers sooner rather than later. Put not your trust in Alaskan beauty queens.

On the other hand, the continued economic contraction will continue to add fuel to the anti-government fire as the big-government beast forages desperately for the revenue required to feed its bottomless maw, so it is possible that despite the best efforts of the Republican Party to run its usual game on the grass roots, it will be unable to pull it off. One Republican incumbent has fallen, and that is a legitimate cause for celebration, but many more will have to go before we can reasonably expect any genuine movement toward small-government policies to begin taking place.

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