The Tea Party In Decline

I've long predicted, perhaps more out of hope than foresight, that once the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest got underway, the Tea Party would fade away. I expected that all those newly energized activists would channel their energy into their preferred primary candidate, and after that, into helping the nominee defeat Barack Obama. If the Republican wins, the Tea Party will cease to exist utterly, since it was always primarily an anti-Obama enterprise more than anything else. Just as Republicans didn't care about deficits when George W. Bush was president, they'll stop caring about them once the next Republican takes office.

And now, as Dave Weigel notes, the Tea Party's primary means of getting attention and inspiring fear among Republicans -- primary challenges to GOP incumbents -- is turning out to be far less effective in 2012 than it was in 2010. Utah congressman and Tea Party favorite Jason Chaffetz decided not to bother challenging Orrin Hatch. Other primary challenges are floundering. Even Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the 2012 candidate most vulnerable to a primary challenge, looks likely to escape with his party's nomination. "It's increasingly likely," Weigel says, "that no incumbent Republican will lose a primary to a Tea Partier in 2012."

One conclusion you can draw is that the Tea Party has won, so they don't need to take any more Republican scalps. They've pulled the entire Republican Party over to where they were. For all intents and purposes, the GOP is the Tea Party, a doctrinaire, reckless group of know-nothings who are motivated above all by hatred of Barack Obama. Mission accomplished.

On the other hand, a movement that draws its power from creating fear within its own party has to sustain that fear if it's going to sustain its influence. Chances are that a lot of the novice candidates who got elected to Congress in 2010 are going to lose their seats in 2012, when they won't have the benefit of an enormous Republican wave behind them. So the Tea Party's numbers in Congress are going to be much diminished. Even before that happens, you'll have a campaign in which the Republican presidential candidate will be working to appeal to the center, which means distancing him- or herself from the party's extremist wing. These things are going to combine to make the Tea Party look a lot less fearsome. That'll make it harder for them to keep their activists motivated and easier for Republicans to cross them in the future. If they're ever so inclined.