Julian E. Zelizer: Why Christine O'Donnell is Not You





[Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Arsenal of Democracy" and a book on former President Carter and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, to be published this fall by Princeton University Press.]

In a very clever television advertisement, Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell looks directly at the camera and says to voters: "I'm not a witch. ... I'm you." In another ad, O'Donnell says that unlike her Democratic opponent Chris Coons, "I didn't go to Yale. I didn't inherit millions like my opponent. I'm you."

This statement, in a nutshell, is the message of the Tea Party movement. O'Donnell promises that she will not follow the practices of Washington incumbents who believe that trading favors and making backroom deals are legitimate ways to stay in office....

Many conservative candidates this year have been tapping into the tradition of conservative populism, a tradition that has animated right-wing politics since the 1970s.

In their effort to challenge the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society programs and to overcome the image of country club conservatism, many in the GOP have argued their party best represents average Americans. They have focused on social and cultural issues and anti-establishment rhetoric to claim this mantle. In 2008, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, talked about "Sam's Club Republicans."

The problem they have to overcome is there is a major disconnect between their message and the record of the Republican Party in which they are running. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he advanced the agenda of supply side economics and economic deregulation. His policies have defined the Republicans ever
since....

Given the history, O'Donnell's ad, as good as it is as a piece of political theater, has its problems.

Her website suggests that O'Donnell, like most Tea Party candidates, will not depart that greatly from the GOP's economic policies of tax reductions, deregulation and the curtailment of government spending.

It might very well be that O'Donnell is one of us, but her party's economic policies have tended to benefit a very narrow and well-off portion of the population....

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