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

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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.

 

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