It isn’t exactly a secret that the best if not the only way for a conservative or Republican to get published in the New York Times is to attack their own party (the same formula applies to Jews who know the surest path to a byline on the op-ed page is to condemn Israel). So it is hardly surprising that David Welch, a former Republican National Committee research director and campaign adviser to John McCain, got his moment in the sun today by echoing the newspaper’s liberal editorial line about the sheer awfulness of the Tea Party. Of course, Welch tried to write the piece from the perspective of a conservative, but in doing so he reverted to another standard from the liberal playbook: using dead conservatives to criticize the current ones.

To that end, Welch dragged William F. Buckley from his grave in order to cite the National Review editor’s purge of the John Birch Society from the conservative movement in the 1960s as a precedent that Republicans should now apply to the Tea Party. One can debate whether the Tea Partiers have too much influence in the GOP or whether some of the candidates they have foisted on the party were ill-advised choices, but Welch’s “Where Have You Gone, Bill Buckley?” couldn’t be more off target. The Tea Party has its cranks, but the notion that it is in any way comparable to a hate group like the Birchers isn’t merely a figment of the liberal imagination; it’s sheer slander. That he would make such an outrageous analogy says a lot more about the liberal agenda to brand most Republicans as extremists than it does about the smart way to oppose President Obama’s agenda.

Welch is right when he says Republicans would do well to keep Bill Buckley’s rule that they should support “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” Had they done so, the GOP caucus in the U.S. Senate would be a lot bigger these days since Tea Party insurgents like Sharon Angle and Christine O’Donnell turned likely Republican victories into Democratic triumphs. There is an argument to be made on behalf of what he calls “adult supervision” being applied to the party, especially when it comes to picking candidates.

I would also concede that although I take a dim view of those urging Republicans to cave in to President Obama’s demands on taxes, conservative ideology need not dictate every decision the House leadership makes as it negotiates a budget deal with the president to prevent the country heading over the fiscal cliff.

But these are tactical decisions, not questions about the nature of the party or the state of modern conservatism. That is why Welch’s cri de coeur on behalf of a revived Republican establishment and moderates like Chris Christie is not only wrong-headed, but an insidious attempt to further the efforts of liberals to smear all contemporary conservatives as extremists.

The John Birch Society that Buckley consigned to the margins from his bully pulpit at National Review had nothing in common with the Tea Party. The Birchers were a relatively small, though loud group percolating on the fever swamps of the body politic. They were dominated by racist and anti-Semitic elements and deeply immersed in conspiracy theories about Communist infiltration of every segment of American society. They were dangerous to conservatism not because they were numerous but because their presence in conservative ranks stood to compromise the entire movement. Buckley had little trouble routing them because they were genuine outliers with little support among Republican activists or voters.

By contrast, The Tea Party sprung up in 2009 and 2010 in response to President Obama’s stimulus boondoggle and the passage of ObamaCare. Despite liberal canards about it being the creation of rich Republican donors, it was a textbook example of a grassroots movement that grew up in spite of the wishes of many party leaders. Though, as is natural for any broad-based surge, its support has gone down since its 2010 heyday, it prospered because it spoke to the basic instincts of many Americans about the danger of out-of-control spending and taxing by the government. Far from espousing extreme ideology, its point of view was very much to the point about the concerns that the president’s unchecked liberalism in his first two years in office had provoked.

Democrats assumed that a Republican Party dominated by the Tea Party was dooming itself to defeat, but the election results of November 2010 proved them wrong. Though the willingness of some Tea Partiers to dump moderate Republicans cost the party some seats they could have won, the GOP’s landslide win that year would not have been possible without the fervor of the Tea Party and the fact that their beliefs resonated with a broad cross-section of voters including many who would never call themselves conservatives.

Though liberal newspapers like the Times have been working hard to brand the Tea Party as extremists, the idea that there is any link or even an analogy between a group focused on reducing the size of government and one steeped in hate like the Birchers is deeply offensive.

It is understandable that some would-be establishment Republicans such as Welch don’t like their party being held accountable for betrayal of conservative principles. And in some limited circumstances they may even be right to claim that Tea Partiers have exercised poor judgment in terms of the candidates they’ve imposed on the GOP as well as the policy decisions they would like to see implemented. But that has nothing to do with what Bill Buckley accomplished.

While one should hesitate to speak in the name of the deceased, I’m sure I’m not alone among conservatives in thinking WFB would have smelled a rat when reading Welch’s piece. Buckley sought to purge extremists from conservative ranks in order to preserve the movement’s principles. Welch wants to purge Tea Partiers specifically in order to dump conservative principles and replace them with the sort of watered-down liberalism that Buckley rightly despised. Buckley spent far more of his career seeking to oust the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the party from the GOP than he did the Birchers.

What the GOP needs today is for grassroots Tea Partiers and more establishment types to work together to build a coherent opposition to the liberal agenda that the president and the Times wish to foist on the country. Any Republican who wants to purge the Tea Party is merely doing the dirty work of those who want to destroy conservatism. Nothing could be more dishonorable or less in keeping with the legacy of Bill Buckley.

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