August 28, 2013
Tea party activists in D.C. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Tea party activists in D.C.
(J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

The days after the 2012 election were dark ones for the tea party. Most of their candidates lost, Tea Party Caucus chairwoman Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) barely held on and then faced ethics questions, and polling showed the tea party brand to be deeply tarnished. Things had gotten so bad that some groups in California wanted to drop “tea party” from their names.

At the national headquarters of Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest umbrella groups, head Jenny Beth Martin presided over empty desks and dwindling volunteer and donor rolls. It was “frightening,” she tells the Wall Street Journal in a new profile of the conservative grass-roots leader out today.

Then, like a ray of sunlight piercing through the clouds, came the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) scandal and the perception (that later turned out to be largely false) that the tax agency politically targeted tea party groups. “From that moment, the tea party has roared back to life,” Martin told the Journal. Soon, her staff doubled, donations tripled, and she now has to subsist on three hours of sleep most nights just to keep up with work and media requests for interviews.

This may be the most important and lasting legacy of the IRS scandal. The media has moved on, and so have many Republicans, but the tea party, once left for dead, was reborn. Never mind that we now know that the IRS also targeted liberal groups, asked similarly intrusive questions of a lot of different kinds of groupsdenied 501(c)4 status to only three groups (all progressives ones), that a self-described “conservative Republican” oversaw the office that handled the applications and that Republicans have been unable to tie the scandal to the White House.

None of that matters because, for a moment there, it looked like the tea party really had been victimized, and the tea party is most potent when playing the victim (of Obamacare, of establishment Republicans, of taxes, of government intrusion and so on).

The movement’s leaders recognized the opportunity in the scandal immediately. Martin invoked what she dubbed “Project Phoenix: It’s time to rise again.”

It helped that she was on “first-name and cellphone basis with nearly all lawmakers with tea-party credentials,” according to the Journal’s Monica Langley, so she started working the phones. Michele Bachmann called Martin at home to brainstorm about a press conference, and Martin worked hand-in-glove with Republican congressional investigators, even helping to chose witnesses, Langley reports:

When Republican representatives scheduled hearings, Mrs. Martin located what she said were a dozen tea-party victims, prepped them and delivered them within 48 hours to congressional investigators, paying their airfares and hotels, according to several people involved in the process.

It seems like a rather stunning level of cooperation between congressional investigators and outside groups whose claims they were supposed to be investigating. It’s natural that lawmakers would want to speak with these groups and witnesses they present, but for a fair and impartial investigation, one would think investigators would maintain a bit of distance from the subject. A Democrat familiar with the oversight process described the level of involvement, especially the prepping of witnesses, as “not normal.”

But, of course, a fair and impartial investigation was never the purpose. If it had been, incomplete transcripts never would have been released and hyperbolic claims of White House involvement never would have been made. The goal was to smear the president. They didn’t accomplish that, but they got a pretty good consolation prize in bringing the tea party back to live.