Beset by challenges on all sides, the tea party needed a leader. Instead, in early September, it got an attempted armed coup — a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction scenario in which former Texas congressman Richard K. Armey tried to seize control of FreedomWorks, a pillar of the movement. (Armey brought an aide with a handgun holstered at his hip to the FreedomWorks headquarters as he attempted to take over. And no, that is not a joke.)
Armey’s mission came up short — he took $8 million to part ways with the organization (not a bad consolation prize) — but that it happened at all exposed the tea party’s fractures to a wide audience.
At the heart of the schism was the question of whether this outsider movement should acclimate itself to the establishment it rebelled against a few years ago. Could the tea party come in from the cold and enjoy the warm embrace of acceptance, or at least tolerance, from the mainstream GOP? And if not, how could it survive without national leaders to help it become something more than an insurgent effort? In other words, the tea party needed a second act but had no director. And no one could even agree on what the script should be. The result? Chaos.
A few moral victories
If the tea party was the bright, shiny object that the political world gazed at in amazement in 2010, by 2012 it looked like a toy that had been discarded as a child moved on to bigger and better things.
To be clear: All wasn’t — and isn’t — lost for the tea party. While 2012 was far from its best year, the movement again proved its ability to influence Republican primary fights. Can you imagine Herman Cain as a relevant force in the presidential race without the power of the tea party?
And yet, its success also showed its limitations in 2012. Mourdock won’t be in the Senate next year. Nor Allen West in the House. A movement can become something bigger only if it understands the difference between winning a battle and winning a war — or between a moral victory and an actual one. The tea party won a few of the former in 2012 but almost none of the latter.
For failing even when it seemed to succeed, the tea party had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.
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