What Happened to the Tea Party?

When the 2012 Republican nominating contest was getting underway earlier this year, it was widely predicted (I predicted it myself) that the race would eventually come down to a contest between an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty, and a Tea Party candidate more appealing to the party's base. It seemed perfectly reasonable at the time; after all, the Tea Party had energized the GOP and propelled it to the historic 2010 congressional election victory. With its anti-Obama fervor, the Tea Party was the focus of all the GOP's grassroots energy, to such a degree that nearly every Republican felt compelled to proclaim him or herself a Tea Partier. Once the Tea Party's champion was selected, we would discover just how much strength the party establishment still held in our decentralized political age.

Yet with the Iowa caucus just six weeks away, it appears that there will be no grand battle between the establishment and the insurgents, the old guard and the new. There is no Tea Party candidate. Or more properly, there has been one Tea Party candidate after another; the party base's fickle affections have left Romney trudging merrily along, tortoise-style, as one far-right hare after another sprints a few yards, then falls exhausted to the ground. Besides Romney, this race has been led at one time or another by Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich. Each of those other candidates has become the Tea Party flavor of the moment, only to flame out spectacularly when they were revealed to be alarmingly radical, grossly incompetent, shockingly ignorant, or all three. In other words, the Tea Party has not exactly been picking winners. Which could well mean their influence over the GOP is beginning to wind down.

Nevertheless, we must grant the Tea Party this: However pernicious you find its goals, there is little doubt that it has been a smashing success, in political if not substantive terms. Unlike other political movements that spend years trying to slowly build support, the Tea Party exploded in early 2009, quickly establishing itself as a national force that could capture attention, harangue Democrats, and purge Republican officeholders it found insufficiently devoted to conservative orthodoxy.

This happened in large part because the Tea Party's grassroots appeal to conservative Republicans was met with an opportunistic boost from elite Republicans who saw in the nascent movement a perfect vehicle through which to battle the Obama administration. As soon as the Tea Party appeared, groups like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks—staffed by experienced Republican operatives and funded by the usual corporate coffers—swept in to offer training and organizational support. And as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson write in their excellent new book, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, "the Tea Party cannot be understood without recognizing the mobilization provided by conservative media hosts who openly espouse and encourage the cause. From Fox News to right-wing radio jocks and bloggers, media impresarios have done a lot to create a sense of shared identity that lets otherwise scattered Tea Parties get together and feel part of something big and powerful. Media hosts also put out a steady diet of information and misinformation—including highly emotional claims—that keep Tea Party people in a constant state of anger and fear about the direction of the country and the doings of government officials."

This institutional support allowed the Tea Party to rapidly become a political force, but it has been far less successful at achieving its substantive goals. The Tea Party didn't stop the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and while it pushed deficit reduction to the top of the agenda, as of yet, it has not succeeded in dramatically reducing the size of government. When Tea Party Republicans brought the nation to the brink of default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, most of the American people were repulsed, leaving them far less able to mount another hostage crisis. Their apex of influence has passed, and it is unlikely to return.

When the Republican nominee is chosen -- whether it's Mitt Romney or someone else –- things are only going to get worse for the Tea Party. Every major-party nominee feels a need to move to the center upon winning the nomination, since he now has to persuade the broad electorate, not just the party faithful. The nominee will know all too well that the Tea Party is unpopular with independent voters, so little good can come of being associated with it. Imagine the spectacle of hemming and hawing that would ensue if Romney were asked in an October 2012 debate with Obama whether he considers himself a Tea Partier. His answer will no doubt make their blood boil.

It ought to have been predictable that the Tea Party would have trouble coming up with a candidate for president to take on Romney. Tea Partiers proudly proclaim that their movement has no leaders, but that leaves them unable to act as a bloc. They are, almost by definition, impractical activists, focused more on ideological purity than on winning. So it isn't a surprise that they have embraced one absurd candidate after another, from Trump to Bachmann to Cain, or that they have been unable to unify around anyone. And though we've heard a hundred times that Tea Partiers don't like Mitt Romney, what will they do if he becomes the nominee? They'll have two choices: sit on their hands, in which case they become completely irrelevant, or get in line behind the nominee with the rest of the Republican coalition, in which case they become almost irrelevant, at least as a distinct faction. They'll do the latter, of course -– after all, they're partisan Republicans, and nothing is more important to them than their hatred of Barack Obama.

When it's over—whoever wins—the Tea Party will no longer seem like such a dangerous beast that must be appeased. Republicans will look at the damage the Tea Party has done to the GOP's image—the debt-ceiling debacle, the promotion of ridiculous candidates like Bachmann and Cain—and be rather more hesitant to appease them. In fact, the best thing that could happen to them would be for Barack Obama to be re-elected. After all, the Tea Party is fundamentally a movement of opposition, all anger and resentment. It has shown itself quite clearly to have no interest in governing. And so, the Tea Party has a hard and fast expiration date: the first day of the next Republican presidency. On that day, it will become little more than a memory—one of a fascinating and significant episode in our political history, but a memory nonetheless.

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