What Is a "Tea Party Candidate"?

The New York Times today does its best to get a handle on all these Tea Party candidates, and it's an admirable service. But the way it fails tells us a lot about what the Tea Party is now, and its eventual fate.

As the article starts throwing around numbers about how many Tea Party candidates there are and what their chances are, you start asking, "How are they defining this?" And here's the answer:

For purposes of the list, Tea Party candidates were those who had entered politics through the movement or who are receiving significant support from local Tea Party groups and who share the ideology of the movement. Many have been endorsed by groups like FreedomWorks or the Tea Party Express, or by conservative kingmakers like Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, but those endorsements alone were not enough to qualify as a Tea Party candidate.

With all the "or"s, that definition could apply to pretty much any non-incumbent Republican running for Congress this year. And what is that "ideology of the movement"?

While there is no official Tea Party platform, candidates share a determination to repeal the health care legislation passed in March. They vow not only to permanently extend the tax cuts passed under President George W. Bush and to eliminate the estate tax, but also to replace the progressive income tax with a flat tax or a national sales tax. Several candidates advocate abolishing the Internal Revenue Service entirely.

Many have called for a balanced budget amendment. They oppose newly passed financial regulation, and oppose cap-and-trade of carbon emissions.

The candidates also promise to carry into office the Tea Party’s strict interpretation of the Constitution.

With the exception of the flat tax/national sales tax, once again, this will apply to pretty much any Republican these days. I'm not trying to attack the Times and reporter Kate Zernike here -- she's doing her best. The problem is that the Tea Party is, as becomes more clear all the time, just a bunch of conservative Republicans. As for "Tea Party candidates," what's become clear is that all it takes to be a Tea Party candidate is to say "I'm a Tea Party candidate!" Some of them really are in politics for the first time, but others are people like Christine O'Donnell, currently on her third run for Senate, who just happen to be Tea Party candidates because they're Republicans running for office in 2010. In fact, lots of incumbent Republicans have proclaimed themselves allies of the Tea Party; the only reason they don't get called "Tea Party candidates" is because they're incumbents. So when many of these Tea Party candidates go to Congress, will they no longer be Tea Partiers? Or at that point, can any Republican, no matter how long he's been in office, be a Tea Party congressman?

All this vagueness is part of why the Tea Party is going to begin its quick journey into oblivion some time around Nov. 3. For the next year and a half, until the 2012 Republican presidential nominee is chosen, people will still talk about courting the Tea Party, as one element of the presidential race. After that, the Tea Party will only be mentioned occasionally. It will nominally still be in existence, but establishment Republicans and conservative groups will no longer bother to try to get to the front of its parade (as in "The Heritage Foundation fully supports their endeavors and believes the Tea Party movement is here to stay"), since there will be no parade. Dick Armey will, having milked everything he can from it, go back to corporate lobbying. The official tent-folding, noticed by almost no one, will happen on the day the next Republican president is elected.

-- Paul Waldman

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