Several writers are clattering around with wooden carts and shouting for Tea Partiers to bring out their dead. “I see a Tea Party whose influence is gradually declining, not increasing,” writes Molly Ball. “The Tea Party’s Over,” editorializes Josh Kraushaar. “Talk of a tea party takeover of American politics – or the Republican Party – has faded of late,” observes Chris Cillizza.
Commentary on the Tea Party has revolved between relieved notices of its death and apocalyptic warnings of its Gríma-like power over the catatonic GOP. And while it’s tempting to think we’ve merely swung back to the death notice phase, Ball, Kraushaar, and Cillizza all make fair points. Only one Republican senator—Thad Cochran—and two Republican congressmen—Mike Simpson and Bill Shuster—face serious primary challenges from the right. Tea Party-aligned groups like the Club for Growth are muted compared to 2012. The movement's involvement in the 2014 election seems relatively small.
But to declare the Tea Party in decline for these reasons is to argue that the Tea Party was only ever concerned with candidates. This has been the shallow Beltway analysis for some time: Republicans are conservatives, Tea Partiers are insane conservatives, and therefore Tea Partiers are trying to primary Republicans. Cut to three Morning Joe guests nodding in unison. The truth, of course, is far more complex than this.
The Tea Party came into existence for two reasons. The first was its id—a reaction against the discredited political class that brought us No Child Left Behind, calamity in Iraq, a homeownership society-cum-popped housing bubble, record debt, a failed stimulus, and a destructive overhaul of our health insurance. This was the Tea Party’s fist in the air. It was also, despite its emotion, what attracted so many independents and newcomers, who were furious at Washington and wanted a political outlet for their anger.
The second reason was the Tea Party’s super-ego—a calculated attempt to move the Republican Party in a direction more favorable to its small-government principles. This meant—let’s not dance around the issue—rejecting the Bush years and their regnant philosophy of compassionate conservatism. It’s why, with a few long-forgotten exceptions like Joe Miller, Tea Partiers rarely ran as third-party candidates. It was old GOP pols concerned with their own fortunes, like Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist, who were more likely to run as independents. The Tea Party wanted to change the Republican Party, not destroy it.
In March of 2011, the political media noticed something alarming: The Tea Party was intimately involved in redistricting efforts at the state level. “They understand that the way districts are drawn impacts our political culture perhaps more than anything else,” Mark Meckler, Tea Party Patriots coordinator and occasional Spectator contributor, told Politico. Many screamed hypocrisy, but this should have been an indication that the Tea Party, despite the stereotypes, always had savvy political goals. Thanks to its redistricting efforts, the Republican lock on the House of Representatives looks secure for the near future.
Meanwhile the GOP has been leaning intellectually towards the Tea Party. Despite some recent pusillanimity over the sequester, it’s much more difficult for Republicans to spend gobs of taxpayer money than it used to be. Liberals have been skidding backwards trying to defend entitlements against sensible conservative proposals. Republicans stood strong against a pointless military adventure in Syria. Senator Rand Paul won the straw poll at CPAC by bashing the NSA and the surveillance state. Old Bushies have become like the Frankenstein Creature, wandering the earth, searching for companionship.
Ask John Boehner whether he thinks the Tea Party has influenced policy-making in the House. Ask any conservative or libertarian policy wonk if the market for their ideas in Washington and in the states today is the same as it was in 2006. Or look at the Farm Bill, which in the 2000s was a badge of honor for appropriating GOP politicians, and is now passed in the dark of night (with the rhetorical cloak of “reform/cuts”) to avoid to voter scrutiny and anger. Just as with the backlash over earmarks, what has traditionally been typical Washington deal-making is now something Republicans have to sheepishly defend.
All of this is in line with the Tea Party’s traditional conservatism. To call the group dead is to miss that the Tea Party and the GOP are becoming one and the same, and the latter is being assimilated into the former. It’s an intellectual adjustment, not a perpetual campaign against incumbents.
And even if you do measure Tea Party success on the basis of candidates, is 2014 really such a low point? The marquee attraction, the Senate race in Arkansas, features Tom Cotton, a Tea Party Republican (albeit one with some differences on foreign policy). Cory Gardner in Colorado fits the bill. Movement darling Sen. Tim Scott is expected to cruise to re-election in South Carolina. Rowdy primaries in Nebraska and Oklahoma all feature palatable candidates. Even Mitch McConnell, expected to crush challenger Matt Bevin, had to cozy up to Rand Paul and hire Ron Paul’s former campaign manager. The entire Republican Party is running against Obamacare, the Tea Party's longtime bête noire.
So is it really time to play taps and lower the Gadsden Flag? A recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll did find only 23 percent of respondents had a positive view of the Tea Party. But those numbers aren’t all that relevant. The Tea Party’s goal was to infiltrate and reorient the GOP, and at this it’s been largely successful. Now, with Republicans sanguine about taking the Senate this November, let’s hope it can change our fiscal policy too.