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Commentary: Tea no spills on GOP

SAN DIEGO -- A political party is only as good as the principles it espouses. And if it doesn't live up to those ideals, it's no good at all.

So, who's afraid of a little friendly competition? It turns out some Republicans are. Fifty years ago, Democrat John Kennedy implored Americans: "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Today, the Republican message is more: "Do as we say, not as we do."

In one of the sideshows of the State of the Union address, some GOP aides on Capitol Hill grumbled to reporters about CNN's decision to air a re-sponse by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a darling of the tea party movement who was asked by its leaders to deliver a counter to Obama's remarks.

It was clear from the chatter that some conservative pundits and bloggers agreed that Bachmann shouldn't have been given such a forum.

The "official" GOP response was delivered by a darling of the House Republican leadership: Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. As Bachmann began to speak, she went out of her way to insist that her remarks were not intended to compete with the official message.

Sure. And elephants can fly.

Republicans have reason to fear the tea party movement. Last year, the grass-roots political crusade was a thorn in the sides of liberals, progressives and Democrats. But this year, with Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives and the tea party fully aware it helped put them there, the act-ivists are more likely to become a problem for Republicans.

Originally, Bachmann's response was going to get limited exposure and be viewable only on the Internet. But at the last minute, CNN decided to air the remarks live. Fox News taped it. Republican aides didn't like the decision one bit, insisting the broadcast -- especially the live feed -- was creating conflict and that the spectacle of dueling GOP lawmakers made their side look divided.

Well, isn't it? CNN didn't create this division. The network merely put it on television and gave it a forum.

I realize that many conservatives are naturally suspicious about anything the "liberal media" does, and often with good reason. And so I understand how this suspicion might lead conspiracy theorists on the right to think this was a setup.

It may well be that some on the left saw the decision to air Bachmann's remark as a double benefit. It drives a wedge be-tween the Republican establishment and the tea party. And, if Bachmann had bombed -- she didn't -- her own presidential hopes may be diminished.

But this doesn't take away from what this story was really about: competition. Clearly, Bachmann and Ryan were competing -- for the attention of viewers and the approval of party leaders. And what's wrong with that?

The GOP presents itself as the party of competition. On a good day, you'll find Republican leaders advocating for free trade, school vouchers, and an end to public-subsidized media such as National Public Radio. You'll even find some Republicans, although fewer than there used to be, sticking their heads out of their foxholes to support comprehensive immigration reform because they recognize businesses need labor and that it is pathetic for American workers to fear foreign competition.

That's what Republicans supposedly believe. And the message is strong, and right, and valuable for the country. It's not what people want to hear but it's what they need to hear. Many Americans don't want to compete anymore, whether it is with their neighbors or with foreign countries. That's why the Democrats' protective message is appealing to some, especially in tough times. And why Republicans need to keep pushing the opposite message: that competition benefits everyone.

But there's a catch. Some Republicans don't really believe in competition, after all.

And that kind of hypocrisy makes the Republican Party look awful.