Is the tea party dead? Or just resting?

December 4, 2012

The tea party is at a crossroads.

Almost four years removed from its initial stirrings, the tea party movement finds itself riven by internal discord, without some of its most prominent leaders and faced with a party establishment that seems ready to abandon it -- or at least buck its wishes -- in the face of the 2012 election results.

"The Tea party has the opportunity to remain a leading force in American politics, but to do so, it must mature, take the next step and prove it can be part of a coalition that can actually govern," said Jesse Benton, a longtime adviser to retiring Rep. Ron Paul and now campaign  manager for Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's 2014 re-election race. "After two cycles, it's not enough to just be the angry people waving Gadsden Flags and yelling about Washington."


Defeated Florida Rep. Allen West. Harry Hamburg/AP

There's little debate that the last few months have been among the toughest of the tea party's (relatively) brief existence.

To wit:

* Freedomworks, one of the leading pillars of the tea party movement, appears to be in the midst of a major internal squabble -- with former Texas Rep. Dick Armey leaving the organization on what appears to be not-so-good terms.

* Reps. Allen West (R-Fla.) and Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), two of the leading tea party figures in Congress, both lost re-election bids on Nov. 6.  Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)  narrowly escaped defeat against an unheralded challenger. And tea party favorites like Todd Akin (Akin was never a tea party favorite and most tea party aligned groups backed his opponents in the Republican primary) and Richard Mourdock lost what should have been sure-thing Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, respectively. 

* House Republicans seem more than willing to buck the wishes of the tea party when it comes to the fiscal cliff. The proposal put forward by House Speaker John Boehner (and signed onto by all of the major GOP leaders in the chamber) would raise $800 billion in revenues and was immediately greeted with a collective grimace from conservatives. (South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint said Tuesday that Boehner's plan "will destroy American jobs".)

All of that comes at a time when those who identify with the tea party is close to historic lows.

A mid-October AP-GfK poll showed that 24 percent of Americans considered themselves tea partiers, down from a high of 33 percent who said the same in June 2011 and near the record low of 22 percent reached in May 2012. 

Exit polling from the 2012 election showed that 21 percent supported the tea party movement, 30 percent opposed it and 42 percent felt neutrally about it. That's a major change from exit polling in the 2010 election when 41 percent supported, 30 percent opposed and 24 percent felt neutrally. (Worth noting: Comparing a midterm electorate and a presidential electorate is an inexact science due to the heavily increased turnout in a presidential year.)

Sal Russo, a media consultant and adviser to the Tea Party Express, acknowledged that "there are always going to be disagreements about how to best achieve our goals" but added that: "We are going to continue to engage people politically and encourage their participation in the process until we elect a majority of fiscal conservatives that will be serious about fixing the financial woes we have and getting the country to prosperity so that ladder of opportunity is available to everyone."

And Jon Lerner, a Republican consultant who works closely with the Club For Growth, insisted that the tea party remains a major force in GOP primaries -- and, as such, is something establishment Republicans should be very wary of ignoring.  "Tea Party voters represent a huge portion of all Republican voters, so while the GOP establishment sometimes finds the Tea Party inconvenient, they are much better off making peace with it than making war with it," said Lerner.

True enough. But, it still seems clear that the tea party is in the midst of a sort of soul searching.  For a movement that burst onto the national scene with a force almost never seen in modern American politics, there's no obvious second act. The movement needs a next fight or, short of that, to make a decision as to whether it can live within the Republican coalition or not.

(That latter choice is complicated by the fact that the tea party was built as a leaderless enterprise and so the idea of such a major philosophic decision being made for the entire movement is anathema to, well, the entire movement.  Rick Reed, a Republican media consultant, suggested that "there may be a couple of folks whom 10 percent of Republicans would loosely and correctly associate with [the tea party movement], but probably no more.")

One senior Republican party strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about the future of the tea party movement, expressed concern that while the tea party was at a "low point" today, the coming legislative fights in Congress could lead to a renaissance in the movement.

"What I worry about is that the fiscal cliff/debt ceiling negotiations become like TARP, which is what started this," said the GOP strategist. "We get a deal that is good for the country but our base goes crazy and it gets them all ginned up again."

How the tea party impacts (or doesn't) the ongoing fiscal cliff negotiations -- and the debt ceiling fight likely to come at the end of February -- will be telling indicators of how the party views the tea party and what the movement wants its future to be.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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