The Tea Party Is Dead! Long Live The Tea Party!

[ Posted Wednesday, May 7th, 2014 – 17:23 UTC ]

Today's article title is meant as commentary on the media's overreactions to the first big round of primary election results (announced last night), and not any sort of supportive call to arms. Just to be clear up front, in case anyone was expecting a very different sort of article. It really should read "The Tea Party Is Dead / Long Live The Tea Party," since it represents a clear dichotomy in how pundits reacted to the primary results. Since the Tea Party candidates didn't do very well (and even that's putting it charitably) in this first big round of primaries, many are now proclaiming total victory for the Establishment Republican faction of the Republican Party, and an absolute rout of the Tea Party faction. The second way of interpreting the results warns that rumors of the Tea Party's death are premature, and that what really happened was that the Tea Party's takeover bid for the entire Republican Party is now a complete success. The Tea Party won, this way of thinking goes, because they have now become the Republican Party.

Which is it? Is the Tea Party dead? Or is it enjoying ever-increasing vigor because it has so successfully co-opted the Republican Party itself? The answers aren't really clear, mostly because the Tea Party itself is rather nebulous and hard to pin down (it always has been) and also because the Tea Party faction isn't really all that new in the Republican Party (although they do now have a catchy new name). There has been an intraparty feud between ultra-conservatives and merely-staunch-conservatives, after all, since at least the 1960s (see: Goldwater, Barry).

Tea Party groups have evolved over time. Initially, they were supposed to be grassroots, libertarian, and spontaneous; but there were many who almost immediately attempted to grab the Tea Party mantle and turn it into their own giant political machine. Even now, there are squabbles within the Tea Partiers over who best represents the purity of the initial movement. So while it may be impossible to generalize about "all Tea Partiers," it may instead be more instructive to look at whether some of their key organizing ideas are alive or dead.

First and foremost, the Tea Party was anti-tax. It's right there in the name, which was originally an acronym: "Taxed Enough Already!" This idea is alive and doing quite well in the Republican Party, but that's not saying all that much because it has always been a core Republican belief. Grover Norquist and his pledge were around a long time before the Tea Partiers made the scene, to put this another way. Republicans have never championed tax increases, and have punished their own whenever they've strayed from the "lower taxes" path of purity (as George H. W. Bush discovered after breaking his "No new taxes!" promise). So while the absolutist anti-tax idea is alive and well, it always has been -- and, therefore, cannot really be used as any measure of Tea Party strength within the Republican Party.

The Tea Party was also, from the beginning, anti-government. Again, this has been a Republican refrain since at least F.D.R.'s time. But the Tea Party took it a step further in 2010. Just being anti-government wasn't enough for the Republican base, they preferred candidates who were absolutely untainted by government because they had never held any elected office. Call it the ultimate version of "throw the bums out" -- any experience in Washington (or even, at times, state or local government) was seen as almost a disqualification by the Tea Party base. The Tea Partiers felt that Republicans currently in Washington had sold out on some core ideas and needed to be purged.

The idea that government is to be fought against and feared is still alive and well within the Republican Party. Once again, though, it always has been to some degree or another. The party itself swung much more absolutist on the subject in 2010, but since then have seen the results of demanding "pure" candidates, untainted by such things as knowing how not to say stupid things on the campaign trail. At least five or six Senate seats have been lost by such Tea Party candidates in the past two election cycles, after all. The Tea Party base would score a big victory by nominating a political neophyte, only to see them crash and burn in the general election. The big news from last night is that the Republican base voters seem to now be of a more critical mind when vetting candidates for important offices. Wacky candidates already prone to gaffes were given a mighty cold shoulder from the Republican voters yesterday -- not only did all the big Tea Party challengers lose, they didn't even manage to force a runoff in the North Carolina Senate race (more on that in a moment).

The next key Tea Party rallying idea was anti-spending, or what Europe calls "austerity." This was the most potent fighting point within the Republican Party, because when Republicans held both houses of Congress in the early Bush years, they racked up quite a bit of debt. So this truly was an insurgent movement within the party. Republicans had always given lip service to cutting spending, but they had (according to the Tea Party) "lost their way" when they were in power in Congress. This one has to be scored as a major victory for the Tea Party, because they have certainly refocused Republicans in Washington on budget-cutting. Austerity was the way to go for congressional Republicans, ever since the Tea Partiers were so victorious in 2010. But even this seems to be cycling back. In the first place, the Tea Partiers overreached badly in their tactics. Even when offered 90 or 95 percent of what they were asking for, the Tea Partiers dug in their heels and demanded all or nothing. This led to fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns. Which the public soon tired of.

The public is also getting tired of the austerity calls. Back when we were running $1.4 trillion deficits and 750,000 people were losing their job each month, austerity was a political winner. But since that time unemployment is down from 10.0 percent to 6.3 percent, the deficit has been more than cut in half, and calls for belt-tightening no longer seem as relevant to the public. Even House Republicans seem to realize this, as this week they'll be voting on several tax cuts which are not paid for -- adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the deficits. By prioritizing more tax cuts and not even attempting any simultaneous budget cutting, Republicans seemingly have come full circle on extra spending for their priorities. So the Tea Party did yank the Republican Party towards austerity for awhile, but they seem to be back to offering little more than lip service (and an occasional symbolic Paul Ryan budget document) to the idea any more.

The last idea associated with the Tea Party (fairly or not) was being against all sorts of social issues. Anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, even anti-science -- there are a lot of things Tea Partiers are perceived as being against. Now, to be fair, some of the Tea Partiers (including some of the originals) insist that they were always only about fiscal issues, and had never taken a stand on social issues. Nonetheless, individual Tea Party candidates have indeed shown that there is a wide streak of caring about social issues among those who call themselves Tea Partiers. At least two Senate seats were lost by anti-abortion comments that were perceived as being too extreme. But, once again, this can mostly be chalked up to extremely inept candidates. There has always been a wide swath of the Republican Party who cares deeply about social issues of all types, at least as far back as the rise of the Christian Right in Ronald Reagan's time. The gay marriage battles were fought for over a decade before the Tea Party ever existed. Abortion has been a flashpoint since 1973. There have always been many "one-issue voters" within the Republican Party on all manner of social issues. So the Tea Party's influence on them was likely pretty negligible in the first place, especially when you consider how deeply-held some of these beliefs are. The Republican Party as a whole, though, is beginning to show some tiny cracks on some of these issues, as more and more in the party realize how stances such as being against gay marriage are losing them millions of young people each year. But, whether the party is evolving at all or not, the Tea Party probably didn't have much to do with it either way.

The Tea Party faction within the Republican Party has been around for a long time. Ultra-conservatism is not exactly a new thing. They flexed their power enormously in 2010, but weren't as successful in 2012 during an election year. In 2014, they seem to be losing their base of popular support -- as measured by Tea Party candidates losing all the big races yesterday. But perhaps the voters are simply tired of being tripped up by the "I'm the pure candidate because I've never worked in politics before" candidates who have gone on to lose important general elections.

While some are portraying this as total victory for the Establishment Republicans, others point out that the candidate who won in North Carolina -- the guy who was supposed to be the "centrist" fending off all the Tea Partiers -- is not all that different than a Tea Partier himself on the issues. Meaning the Tea Partiers have completely co-opted the Republican Party -- to the point that even the "Establishment Republican" candidate is nothing more than a Tea Partier. The party as a whole has been driven so far to the extremes that it now cannot be distinguished from the Tea Party -- a total victory for the Tea Party, not the Establishment Republicans.

Or, to put it another way: either "The Tea Party is dead!" or "Long live the Tea Party!"

Both are probably right, to some degree. If the Tea Party candidates continue to be routed in the next few primary elections, one thing will be clear: the threat incumbent Republicans most fear, of a Tea Party primary challenger (or "getting primaried" as it's now called) will recede somewhat. This could mean the party as a whole might begin to actually ease away from Tea Party extremism, as more Republican House and Senate members decide to vote for things they would have shied away from previously (such as, perhaps, immigration reform). Tea Party influence may wane, but then it just may surge again as we get nearer to the 2016 nominating contest. But the Tea Party can't be said to be dead within either the Republican Party or within it's base voters. It'll have an influence for years to come, most likely. But this has always really been the case -- there have been conservative extremists within the Republican Party for at least half a century now. Perhaps the catchy label "Tea Party" will become a thing of the past at some point, but it won't change the intraparty Republican struggle for power much, because it's been going on a lot longer than the "Tea Party" label has been around.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


13 Comments on “The Tea Party Is Dead! Long Live The Tea Party!”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    The Left's efforts to demonize and marginalize the Tea Party seems to have some unintended consequences..

    As Liz pointed it, it's making it easier for viable Republican Candidates to avoid being primaried and thus go on to win General Elections..

    I believe the term ya'all are searching for is Hoisted By Their Own Picard



  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    I think I have discovered why the Tea Party is in decline..

    Persecution by the Obama Administration..

    On average, about 1% of Americans are singled out to be audited by the IRS...

    By contrast, 10% (TEN TIMES THE AVERAGE) of donors to Tea Party organizations were singled out to be audited by the IRS...

    Now, applying ya'alls "CHRISTIE LOGIC" (patent pending) either Obama knew what was going on and is, therefore, responsible for the actions of his IRS...

    Or he is incompetent because he DIDN'T know that his IRS was targeting his political opponents...

    Which is it???


  3. [3] 
    TheStig wrote:

    "Tea Party groups have evolved over time."

    I like that sentence. Partly because it's strictly accurate, but mostly because the word evolution really annoys the pseudo science wing of the Republican Party.

    Political scientists have many lines of evidence that living species of the Tea Party belong to the John Birch Clade via the Ultra Reactionary Republican Clade of the Mainstream Republican Clade of the Whig Clade.

    First, there is the fossil evidence, found in library stacks, or stacks of paper on my desk. These majestic mounds are like a window back in time. As political scientists dig deeper into the stacks, they travel back in time. OK, strictly speaking, it's political grad students that wield the pickaxes and whisk brushes. But, regardless of who does the manual labor, at what wage rate, on what deck of the Political Ship of the Imagination, many JBS tracts from the 1950s are nearly word for word identical to tea party fliers reliably dated to 2008.

    There is also DNA evidence. This can be studied by grinding up bits Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Michele Bachmann, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz, extracting their sound bites, mixing them, and watching the bites clump together on talk shows. This is complicated, you need white suites, pipettes and laminar hoods to maintain political correctness.

    You can also follow the money coded for by the DNA, or maybe that works the other way around. Anyway, the DNA of American's for Prosperity, The Chamber of Commerce and Freedom Works reveals that much of the Tea Party Movement is actually held together bt a matrix of AstroTurf and well edited nostalgia. See Disney Land/World.

  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    Political scientists have many lines of evidence that living species of the Tea Party belong to the John Birch Clade via the Ultra Reactionary Republican Clade of the Mainstream Republican Clade of the Whig Clade.

    Funny you should mention the John Birchers.. :D

    If it's possible for the left to have its John Birch moment, we're in it. Wave goodbye to cardboard civility.

    Once again, whatever accusation that can be leveled at the Right, almost surely applies to the Left as well..

    Ahhhhhhhh It's refreshing to be a political agnostic.. :D


  5. [5] 
    akadjian wrote:

    Looks to me more like another rebrand of the Mitt Romney shake the etch-a-sketch variety.

    I don't see any real policy changes.

    They're just learning how to hide the Ayn Rand and von Mises books and taking classes on how to talk to women.

    It is interesting though. Here in Ohio's District 1, I'm excited because we just chose Fred Kundrata to run for Congress in District 1. He's a former Republican who decided that the Democratic party better represented his values because Republicans had gotten too extreme.

    Me personally, I don't really care about the culture wars. I'll vote for a Republican when I see someone capable of discussing economic policy beyond giving tax cuts to the rich and hoping the benefits "trickle down".

    Keep sending them our way, Republicans!


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    I mean, look at it objectively..

    Did you think that you would EVER hear from the LEFT that NO DEBATE and NO QUESTIONING is the preferred path to travel??

    Heaven forbid that people should actually, HORROR OF HORRORS, be exposed to new ideas and new perceptions that would cause them to question the status quo...

    I like that sentence. Partly because it's strictly accurate, but mostly because the word evolution really annoys the pseudo science wing of the Republican Party.

    You mean, as opposed to the pseudo science wing of the Democratic Party?? :D

    I can provide numerous examples upon request... :D


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    He's a former Republican who decided that the Democratic party better represented his values because Republicans had gotten too extreme.

    Or, he's a former Republican who realized he couldn't get elected AS a Republican and jumped ship.. :D

    Does the name Arlen Specter mean anything to ya?? :D

    You say "honorable", I say "oppurtunist".. :D


  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    Another example of the Left's ongoing war to silence diversity and eliminate anyone from the public who disagrees with them..

    Where is the tolerance???


  9. [9] 
    akadjian wrote:

    You say "honorable", I say "oppurtunist".. :D

    "Honorable" is your word. I said he thought the Republican party had grown too extreme.

    In his words, he was surprised by "how far right the party had turned following the emergence of the Tea Party."

    And I don't like him just because he's running as a "Democrat". I like him because of his beliefs:

    "I would go after money to maintain our vital infrastructure: sewers, roads, railways, bridges and waterways. That will create jobs. I would advocate job training and experiences that help us better meet the requirements of today's jobs. I'll press for educational excellence; do what we have to do to raise all standards and increase funding for our educational efforts."

    On the ACA:

    "I do support any and all efforts to make the Affordable Care Act ... the best law. There was a botched rollout. I want to see fairness with this law. ... I know I can assist in that effort to make the law much better."

    On a living wage:

    "I believe it's imperative ... to raise people out of poverty and give people a livable wage. For too long this issue has been avoided in Congress or turned down by the Republicans."


  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:

    "Honorable" is your word. I said he thought the Republican party had grown too extreme.

    Yea, well you used "values".. I extrapolated.. :D

    He wants a "livable" wage..

    Who defines "livable"??

    Is "livable" 2 Priuses (Priusii??? Priusium??) in every garage, 72" LED WideScreen on every wall??

    Whatever happened to compensation in accordance with the requirements of the job???

    Should someone who flips burgers get the same pay as someone who does open heart surgery???

    If someone wants that kind of pay, here's a crazy thought... EARN IT....

    Here's another thought.. Why don't Democrats take steps to not make the cost of living so expensive??

    Democrats have been in power for 6 years now!

    Where's the progressive utopia that they said their rule will bring???

    Don't tell me, let me guess..

    It's all the Republicans' fault... :D


  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    In his words, he was surprised by "how far right the party had turned following the emergence of the Tea Party."

    I believe Arlen Specter said words similiar as did Joe Lieberman..

    A man is defined by his actions, not his words..

    Wouldn't you agree???


  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    I know, I know, David..

    Your are going to say this isn't a Right v Left issue.

    If that's true, why are all these comments almost nothing but pointing fingers at the Right and ignoring how it's Democrats who are part of the problem.

    This Net Neutrality is a perfect example...

    I believe it was you who was the fiercest supporter of Net Neutrality, back when Obama supported it to..

    Now Obama has seen that my argument is the correct one and is going about to make Internet "Fast Lanes"....

    Now, in my not so humble opinion, Obama has made things better..

    Your take???


  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:

    "Don't you think??"

    "I try not to. But you're young. Think all you want."
    -Demolition Man



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