Gallup polls mirror other surveys that show the tea party has lost considerable popularity, even within the GOP. The tea party began sliding down hill fast even before the government shutdown. It is worth asking why.
Its supporters will portray the tea party as the victim of the left-wing media, erroneous reports of racism and “establishment” Republicans out to do them in. But in the rationalizations lies one of the reasons for the group’s decline: perpetual victimhood. No one likes a complainer, particularly when failure after failure is blamed on others. (Think President Obama.) In fact, as the tea party constantly points out, the mainstream media is losing market share and conservatives have a variety of media outlets; so if they are losing because of the mainstream media, the tea party must be very weak indeed.
More important, the tea party never made the turn from being against Obamaism (Obamacare, big debt, bailouts) to a positive agenda. The response to every bill or proposal has been “no.” What they are for is far from clear. Once in the House majority, pure oppositional behavior soon became a recipe for dysfunction.
In addition, what started out as a movement in favor of limited government soon strayed into isolationism, anti-immigration reform and a host of other issues. The singular economic focus that was able to command support from Republicans of all stripes, independents and some Democrats got blurred when other issues were put into the mix.
Then there was the spokesman problem. If you want to have widespread support it is probably best not to have Sarah Palin as the face of the movement or rely on controversial talk-show hosts. Many of these people were old hat, recycled movement conservatives and, in any case, too screechy. Moreover, they weren’t reflective of a genuine bottom-up movement.
A grass-roots movement — what the tea party initially was — in essence got co-opted by the professional extreme right, losing its connection to real Americans and becoming unmoored from ordinary people. Sure, millionaire talk-show hosts and inside-the-Beltway right-wing operators (headed by conservatives who’ve been around for decades) can get attention, but they don’t spread the message or convey a populist aura; they concentrate their message so only the most fervent and radical believers stick with them.
And that brings us to the core dilemma for the tea party, for the president and for the insurgents on the left of the political spectrum: Americans aren’t radical people. Poll after poll shows the critical role of self-described moderates in the American political system. (From Pew in 2012: “Despite electoral swings in recent elections, the fundamental ideological breakdown of the American public has shifted little in recent years. In 2012, 39% of Americans [said] they are conservative, 37% say they are moderate and 23% say they are liberal.”) When the tea party was seen as a corrective force to Obama’s overreaching liberalism, it was popular; once it became the opponent of compromise, it lost a good chunk of voters. In short, to do well in American politics — to last, win elections, control the debate — you have to cast a wide net; as soon as hard-core activists narrow-cast their message, they lose numbers.
And finally, let’s face it: No one likes a loser. The tea party essentially flunked out time and time again, whether it was on high-profile Senate races, the GOP 2012 nomination, stopping immigration reform in the Senate, the fiscal cliff and then the shutdown. It never got what it wanted, in large part, because what it wanted was unattainable in these contests. Christine O’Donnell was not going to win in Delaware. And Obamacare was not going to be defunded.
We shouldn’t be surprised at this result. Insurgencies have two possibilities: They fizzle, or they get absorbed. To a large extent, a focus on fiscal discipline and aversion to taxes was absorbed into mainstream GOP politics (these positions, after all, were nothing new). What was left — the non-stop temper tantrums and refusal to deal with political opponents — is the residue and, from all appearances, a political strategy with declining appeal.
The question for conservatives is what follows and how to keep the center-right engaged. Many, including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and GOP governors, think the road to redemption is through a reform agenda focused on middle-class Americans and good governance. There may be other approaches, but increasingly it looks like the heyday of the tea party is behind us.