Did the Tea Party Win or Lose?

Is the Tea Party dead and gone? To a great degree the answer is yes. There are no longer any Republicans with national ambitions, and precious few with even local ambitions, who will proclaim themselves Tea Partiers (Mitt Romney was smart enough to see this coming, so he carefully avoided saying "I'm a Tea Partier" on tape, though he certainly expressed his agreement with their views). The movement has come to be associated with extremism and recklessness, particularly after Tea Partiers in Congress forced a showdown over the debt limit that let to a downgrading of the nation's credit rating. The Tea Party has also become synonymous with a particular brand of Republican politician, those ideologues so dumb and uninformed they barely realize how crazy their views are. This started in 2010 with the likes of Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, continued through the briefly successful presidential candidacy of Michele Bachmann, and can now be seen with Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.

But does that mean the Tea Party was a failure? E. J. Dionne says it was, and the evidence can be seen in the Romney campaign:

If conservatism were winning, does anyone doubt that Romney would be running as a conservative? Yet unlike Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater, Romney is offering an echo, not a choice. His strategy at the end is to try to sneak into the White House on a chorus of me-too's.

The right is going along because its partisans know Romney has no other option. This, too, is an acknowledgment of defeat, a recognition that the grand ideological experiment heralded by the rise of the tea party has gained no traction. It also means that conservatives don't believe that Romney really believes the moderate mush he’s putting forward now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the conservatives are forgiving Romney because they think he is lying, what should the rest of us think?

Almost all of the analysis of Romney's highly public burning of the right's catechism focuses on such tactical issues as whether his betrayal of principle will help him win over middle-of-the-road women and carry Ohio. What should engage us more is that a movement that won the 2010 elections with a bang is trying to triumph just two years later on the basis of a whimper.

Everything Dionne says is true, but there's a case to be made that despite its losses, the Tea Party won. We should clarify that the movement was always little more than a tricorner hat slapped on top of the right wing of the GOP. That doesn't mean that the Tea Party didn't bring in many grassroots activists who hadn't been involved in politics before, because it did. But their activism was not only shaped by old Washington hands like the people at FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, it traveled along paths well-worn by the right for decades. The Tea Party's agenda was completely familiar: tax cuts for the wealthy, downward-directed class war, drastic budget cuts, essentially every part of the long-standing agenda of the far right.

But the fact that the Tea Party was never able to win the support of a majority of Americans and wound up discredited doesn't mean that the movement didn't accomplish extraordinary things. Their principal substantive victory, and it's a huge one, was the elevation of concerns over the deficit and debt above nearly every other policy and moral consideration in Washington. Republicans and Democrats now agree that we need to enact the kind of austerity that is currently crippling many of Europe's economies; their only disagreement is how severe that austerity should be.

And they transformed the Republican Party, or at least drastically accelerated the rightward movement that the GOP had been undergoing for years. Yes, a few of their nutball candidates lost races that would have been won by more mainstream Republicans. But in the process, their primary victories not only struck fear in the hearts of every incumbent Republican, they eliminated from the GOP those individuals who might be voices for moderation in the future. If Mitt Romney loses, there will naturally be a debate within the party over its future. And in that debate, there will be almost no one left to argue that the party should shift to the center, not further right. The GOP now is the Tea Party for all intents and purposes, which means that their views, extreme as they are, will be front and center in every policy debate and granted attention and respect by the news media.

So to paraphrase John Steinbeck, whenever a Sunday show host solemnly intones that we have no choice but to cut the budget to bring down the deficit, the Tea Party will be there. Whenever a bunch of subliterate members of Congress gather on the Capitol steps to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, the Tea Party will be there. Whenever a Republican senator up for re-election promises his state party that he'll be more conservative than he ever was before, the Tea Party will be there. It may be largely gone, but it'll be with us for a long time.

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