The Future of the Tea Party

Thursday, January 31, 2013
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Ordinarily, Jim DeMint’s departure from the United States Senate—in December, he left the “world’s most deliberative body” for the top spot at the Heritage Foundation—wouldn’t have been much of an eyebrow-raiser. It’s not the first time a lawmaker unexpectedly left Congress, only to burrow deeper inside the beltway.

Just three days before DeMint’s surprise, Missouri Rep. Jo Ann Emerson stunned her constituents by stepping down to become head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a lobby involved in, among other things, the Keystone XL pipeline. And it was soon followed by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s decision to move across town, to Foggy Bottom.

  the future of the tea party by bill whalen  
  Tea Party Rally Photo credit: mar is sea Y

Nor does DeMint’s absence change what matters most in Washington: the balance of power. With Rep. Tim Scott taking over for DeMint, the GOP’s Senate caucus remains unchanged at 45 (perhaps 46, if former Sen. Scott Brown jumps into the special election to replace Kerry).

Still, DeMint’s job-change matters—in large part, due his nickname: “Senator Tea Party.”

Over the past two campaign cycles, there arguably was no Washington figure as noticeably bridled to the grassroots political movement that converted conservative and libertarian disgruntlement with spending and taxation into change via the ballot box. DeMint picked fights in the Senate, recruited like-minded candidates to seek office, and raised money to fund their ambitions, much to the chagrin of establishment Republicans. His departure not only leaves Tea Partiers looking for a champion in the U.S. Senate, but also begs the question of where the movement is headed into 2013 and beyond.

The Movement’s Origins

Commentators disagree about when the Tea Party originated. Some give it an exact date of birth: February 19, 2009, when CNBC’s Rick Santelli, ranting about government bailouts on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, suggested it might be time for a “Chicago Tea Party.” Santelli wanted a party in July, but America was a step ahead; eight days after his rant, rallies were held in some 50 cities nationwide.

Others say the movement was more gradual in the making, picking up steam during the Bush 43 presidency as Republicans showed less interest in curbing entitlement growth and deficit-spending despite having control of the executive and legislative branches for parts of Mr. Bush’s tenure in Washington.

And there are those who believe that the Tea Party’s bloodline can be traced back the chart-obsessed Texan who helped take down the first Bush presidency in 1992—H. Ross Perot, whose presidential run shined a spotlight on the evils of excessive spending, debt and deficits.

As for Tea Party progeny, in 2011, some 60-plus House members belonged to the chamber’s Tea Party caucus—with that body’s founder, Rep. Michele Bachmann, mounting a presidential run in the 2012 election. On the other side of Capitol Hill stood DeMint and his Senate Conservatives Fund, which wasn’t shy about wading into the Republican primaries to take out the likes of Arlen Specter and Robert Bennett (DeMint and Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell having little love for each other).

In theory, the 2012 election would have been the next step in the Tea Party’s progression. Its handpicked candidates would have helped Republicans retake the Senate; one of its champions would have emerged as a presidential contender; the grassroots movement would have sent Barack Obama back to Chicago, the city that maybe started it all.

Exactly none of which occurred.

Bachmann’s candidacy never got off the ground; she didn’t advance beyond the Iowa caucuses. Another Tea Party favorite, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was gaffe-prone and quickly fell out of the race. Tea Party activists hailed the choice of House Budget Chair Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate as reaffirmation of the movement’s economic principles.  Only, as the fall election progressed, Ryan seemed to vanish from stage-center—as did the anticipated big debate over spending and entitlements.

As for last year’s Senate races, controversial remarks about women and rape by a pair of Tea Party candidates—Todd Aiken in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana—turned easy GOP wins into losses. For Republicans, it was a familiar plot: In 2010, three controversy-plagued Tea Party candidates managed to snatch defeat from victory’s jaws in Senate races in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware.

The significance? Without those five Tea Party blunders, Republicans at present would have 50 seats in the Senate, which means sharing control of Senate committees with the Democrats.

A Struggle for the GOP’s Soul

Not until Bob Woodward writes another insiders’ tell-all will we be privy to House Speaker John Boehner’s thought process during the fiscal-cliff negotiations. Did Boehner think a deal with President Obama was doable? Did he cave in to a disproportionate tax and cut deal ($15 in new taxes for every $1 in spending cuts) because he thought it was the best deal he could get—or, did he want to save that fight for the next big showdown: raising the federal debt ceiling?

This much is known: To days after the cliff’s deadline, Boehner faced an up-or-down vote for his speakership. That meant securing 217 votes from the 233 Republicans in the new House, 51 of whom are returning members of the Tea Party caucus (two House seats are vacant, thus only 433 members were present to vote). While Boehner survived to see another two years as Speaker (not that he ever was seriously challenged), left unresolved was the Tea Party’s role within the GOP caucus—are Tea Partiers willing to work with the GOP leadership, or ready to revolt if Republicans continue to compromise on debt and deficits. It’s a high question—one far more important than political reporters, who don’t care for the movement, are willing to acknowledge.

While the New York Times claimed that the Tea Party was “significantly weakened” after the 2012 election, and is at risk of becoming “just another political faction,” reality indicates otherwise. The Tea Party Caucus, with its 51 members, doesn’t have enough votes to pass a bill by itself. However, Boehner can’t win a majority vote without buy-in from a firm majority of the caucus. The Speaker learned this the hard way during the fiscal-cliff drama, when the Tea Party caucus refused to go along with his “Plan B.” What House Tea Partiers have in 2013 is leverage. What they may or may not have is a game plan for winning the political tussle over the debt-ceiling raising.

In 2011, Tea Party members opted for a principled stand: no deal unless Congress passed a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget (a demand that Arizona Sen. John McCain dubbed “bizarre”). That, of course, went nowhere. However, in order to get a budget done that year, members agreed to automatic budget cuts and tax increases— the so-called “fiscal cliff”—if Congress failed to get its fiscal house in order. In theory, that put Washington on the hook for spending cuts. For 2013, will the demand be something more pragmatic, such as a return to the standard congressional budget process?

Regardless, there will be a fight. One side of the drama is a fight within the Republican Party heading into the 2014 congressional elections. Determined not to repeat the 2010 and 2012 experience, the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, has said his organization will be more active in next year’s Senate primaries. Translation: The NRSC will try to prevent Tea Party upsets in at least two states where Republican senators are up for re-election—Tennessee, Georgia, and Kentucky. A third targeted incumbent—Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss—avoided the threat by recently announcing his retirement.

The other fight is within the movement itself. The same week that Jim DeMint resigned his Senate seat, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey left FreedomWorks, the Washington-based political group that latched on to the Tea Party bandwagon, investing $40 million in the last election. Armey’s golden parachute: He will get $400,000 a year, for the next 20 years, advising Richard Stephenson, president of the Cancer Treatment Centers of America and a tea-party benefactor. Inside the movement, there’s an unanswered question as to which individuals and which groups will lead the GOP forward heading into 2014—who will develop the nuts-and-bolts strategies that will produce electoral winners?

Which begs still another question: Can the movement’s passion be rekindled? Tea party protests in 2009 were passionate affairs, as was the movement’s descent upon Capitol Hill in the summer of 2011, to protest that year’s version of debt-ceiling talks. Last month, there were no protests against the clandestine deal-making that averted going over the fiscal cliff. The presence of Tea Party activists on Capitol Hill during the upcoming debt-ceiling debate will be a good indicator of the movement’s passion.

Ross Perot: A Cautionary Tale

It’s been 20 years since Ross Perot upended politics as usual, collecting 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and enabling Bill Clinton to back into office, just as another Democratic did 80 years earlier—Woodrow Wilson benefitting from Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft’s splitting of one-half of the nation’s vote.

For the Tea Party movement, Perot offers a cautionary tale. Perot took another stab at the presidency in 1996, organizing his grassroots supporters into an actual party—the Reform Party. This time, he received only 8 percent of the vote.

The Reform Party’s track record after that was mixed. It succeeded in getting Jesse Ventura elected governor of Minnesota, but otherwise the wheels came off the movement. For the 2000 election, some Reform Party activists tried to recruit former Texas Rep. and arch-Libertarian Ron Paul; others thought John McCain deserved the party’s endorsement.  Donald Trump dropped in the chase for the Reform nomination, and then quickly dropped out. Eventually, the nomination went to Pat Buchanan—whose mere 500,000-vote total would be forgotten if not for the butterfly ballot in Florida. The party hasn’t been a serious factor in presidential elections ever since.

The lesson from the Reform experience is that what Perot started did not last, thanks in no small part to the founder’s flakiness (Perot entered, dropped out, then re-entered the 1992 race). Perot wasn’t a Reform candidate in 1996 until he succumbed to the fear (or jealousy, some said) that former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm might become the party’s standard-bearer. This undermined the seriousness of both the man and the movement.

Fast forward to 2013. The Tea Party movement doesn’t lack for heavyweight contenders—Ryan and Perry may seek the presidency in 2016; newly-elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz could emerge as a strong voice as the GOP remolds its image; in Indiana, incoming Gov. Mike Pence is, like Cruz, already a Tea Party favorite (“a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order,” Pence describes himself). Pence is seeking a 10 percent cut in his state’s income tax rate and budget austerity.

Despite those seeming gains, the Tea Party suffers from a malady that goes with losing elections and intellectual dogfights: brand popularity. A CNN-ORC poll from late 2012 showed that 50 percent of Americans now view the movement unfavorably, compared to only 32 percent who approve of it. By contrast, the movement’s unpopularity stood at 40 percent in August 2011, according to a CBS/New York Times poll.

In politics, numbers don’t lie, and those poll numbers indicate a movement in need of image repair—to say nothing of a political win. What course should Tea Partiers take? In the 1990s, America’s ballot-box rebellion died quickly when a grassroots rebellion took the form of an organized party, which, it turned out, wasn’t all that organized. Twenty years later, there’s no immediate sign of the Tea Party coalescing behind a single leader, and no serious talk of the movement becoming something more structured, more permanent.

The choice facing the Tea Party in 2014, 2016, and beyond is this: Should it remain a movement defined by gains in the House and disappointment in the Senate, or should it aspire to become a more permanent faction that is successful in moving the political needle both locally and nationally.