The Tea Party Is Dead? Nah, That’s Just a Flesh Wound

The right wing of the Republican Party is going to get whipped in Tuesday night’s primaries, but its grip is strengthening around the real prize: 2016.


Tonight, the Tea Party is going to lose some elections. Its Senate candidates in Kentucky and Georgia are going to lose—and lose really, really badly in at least in Kentucky. The theme of the night on cable (and for the balance of the week really) will be the death of the Tea Party. Everybody’s waiting with a safety net, as Elvis Costello (nearly) sang, but I say don’t bury them ’cuz they’re not dead yet.

Why? Because while 2014 is, to be sure, going to go down as a bad Tea Party year in electoral terms, we certainly can’t yet say the same of 2016—a much more important year, i.e. presidential. In fact, as of today, what we can say about 2016, speculative as it may be, is that the tea party is if anything in the driver’s seat. The guy we’ve all taken to calling the GOP front-runner, Rand Paul, is a Tea Party guy. That simple fact alone hardly makes for anything I’d call dead.

Beyond Paul, numerous potential candidates are backed by the Tea Party or in some sense have that aura about them. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker—even Mike Huckabee, if he casts his lure [good] into the waters, will be fishing in the Tea Party pond for votes. Yes, there’ll be a Chris Christie or a Jeb Bush to represent the establishment. But if most of the candidates are flat-out Tea Party people or at least Tea Party-friendly creatures, that means to me that the pull of gravity in that primary season is still going to be pretty far to the right, and driven to some decent extent by Tea Party priorities. And let’s face it: If the party does nominate Paul, the Tea Party will have won the biggest prize in intra-party politics: determining the presidential nominee. So 2016 could well be a huge Tea Party year.

But let’s circle back to this year. While it’s true that the majority of Tea Party candidates are losing, something else has been going on more under the radar, smartly picked up on recently by Jamie Fuller of The Washington Post. A lot of Republican candidates are trying to finesse the establishment-Tea Party Maginot Line and be both things to all people. She writes, I believe accurately, that the clear goal of many candidates is “staying comfortable with the tea party while networking with the establishment on the side.” This certainly describes North Carolina’s Thom Tillis. He beat an explicitly Tea Party-backed challenger, but Tillis is still deeply reactionary (eliminate the minimum wage entirely, he once suggested!), he backed the Cruz-led government shutdown, and he is distinguishable ideologically from tea party candidates only in that he’s not quite as wacko as the tea party guy was.

In other words: In one important sense, the tea party has won. In fact, one Tea Party candidate did win a GOP Senate primary this year, Ben Sasse in Nebraska, who campaigned with Cruz, Sarah Palin, and Mike Lee. But the larger point is that when people like Thom Tillis are mainstream Republicans, the Tea Party’s mission is basically accomplished.

If the GOP’s establishment honchos were out there nominating and electing a bunch of Olympia Snowes, then, yes, the Tea Party would be dead. But they’re not. They’re nominating Tea Party wannabees! Not in all cases, certainly. Lamar Alexander is not a Tea Partier. But they’re doing it in enough cases (Tillis, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, others) that If I were a Tea Party organizer, I’d be happy to let the establishment Republicans think they’re winning, knowing that I’d already transformed the party substantially—that I control the GOP caucus in the House and have enough of a plurality in the Senate to stop and subvert almost any compromise the more reasonable Republicans might be willing to make.

I just by implication raised the G-word that you’re not supposed to raise in political columns—governing—because it isn’t horse-racey and fun, but it’s kinda-sorta what all this is about, innit? Yes. And on this front, the Tea Party influx into the congressional GOP is already large enough that the Tea Party can call a lot of governing shots. Theda Skocpol made the point a while back in Democracy, the journal I edit: “…a clear-eyed look shows that Tea Party obstruction remains powerful and has achieved victories that continue to stymie Democratic efforts to govern effectively—a necessary condition for Democrats to win enthusiastic, sustained voter support for the future, including in midterm elections. Our debates about federal budgets still revolve around degrees of imposed austerity. Government shutdowns and repeated partisan-induced ‘crises’ have greatly undercut U.S. economic growth and cost up to a year’s worth of added jobs. Real national challenges—fighting global warming, improving education, redressing extreme economic inequalities, rebuilding and improving economic infrastructure—go unaddressed as extreme GOP obstructive capacities remain potent in Washington and many state capitals.”

She wrote those sentences six or so months ago, but there’s nothing in them that doesn’t hold up today. So the Tea Party is going to lose in tonight’s voting, but it has already won enough to screw the rest of us. And I’m not writing my obituary until at least 2016.