If a year or so ago everyone was a “tea partier” on the GOP side, increasingly I suspect candidates won’t be so anxious to self-identify as such. There will be instead lots of “constitutional conservatives,” “movement conservatives,” “Reagan conservatives,” and “full spectrum conservatives.” If this continues, the tea party, as many of us saw coming, will fold into the GOP completely, leaving little sign of a distinct movement. That is no surprise. . . . Historically, insurgent movements either take over the party and rout the old team or they assimilate into the greater party. With the demise of some of these fringe campaigns, the big names on the right shying away from the cranks, and the passage of a GOP budget (a two-year deal and now the new Ryan budget), we are arriving back where the GOP began before the tea party.
It took only one embarrassing Senate loss in North Carolina to get the ball rolling just as I suggested. Talk radio host and tea party favorite Laura Ingraham told her listeners yesterday that the tea party folks have lost their way:
Let’s face it, they’ve become disorganized and poorly run. Out of the $37.5 million raised by the PACS of the 6 major tea party organizations, less than $7 million has been devoted to directly helping candidates. This obviously means fewer tea party candidates will win, and fewer new voters will take notice . . . . So whether we call it an American Party or simply a populist independent movement, it’s time for the Tea Party to rebrand, reorganize, and re-capture its standing as a credible alternative to our failed Establishment.
Rebrand? The difficulty that may await the tea party is that if it vets candidates, develops professional messaging, listens to voters and adapts its message to become more popular, why, it will be indistinguishable from the dreaded “Establishment” (which may be “failing” its way into majorities in both houses). So much of what defined tea party members was tone, rhetoric and tactics that shaving down the rough edges leaves them looking a whole lot like the same staunch conservatives who have always been around. (I was reminded recently that Club for Growth used to bash President Ronald Reagan routinely for insufficient conservatism.)
Certainly, the tea party won’t be defined by opposition to Obamacare; the “Establishment” Republicans are opposed to it, too. Guns? Nope, the NRA endorsed Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Pro-life? No, National Right to Life endorsed Tillis as well. Immigration reform? Groups and candidates are split: The tea party claims as one of its great successes Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who crafted the Senate immigration reform bill, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says he wants to stop the singular focus on deportation. If tea party members rebrand, reorganize and become credible, they will look an awful lot like other Republicans. And frankly, it’s already hard to tell who is who. Rand Paul backs Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), so is he really a tea party guy?
The downfall of the tea party in its current incarnation began long before North Carolina. As a reactive movement against the excesses of President Obama, it has been somewhat adrift since the GOP captured the House. Fighting against slightly less conservative fellow Republicans does not a movement make. The movement peaked and self-destructed in the government shutdown, when the voters turned on them, House and Senate leaders reasserted their control, conservative senators decried their self-serving attacks and thoughtful Republicans started spending time cultivating ideas, not making enemies within the GOP. Tea party favorites such as Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) now give thoughtful speeches akin to the wonkish stylings of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Tea party idol Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) champions a robust foreign policy and speaks on the centrality of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, a far cry from the guy called a “wacko bird” by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Certainly, the Beltway groups masquerading as grass-roots groups that have been ripping off donors didn’t help. (To her credit, Ingraham has been one of the few other conservatives to slam the tea party groups for taking in millions and spending the loot on themselves and overhead instead of the candidates, defective as they may be.) But, in fact, as a policy matter, the tea party never defined itself in the way that Reagan broke with the GOP orthodoxy (dumping détente, choosing supply side economics over austerity).
The so-called “civil war” within the GOP may soon be no more visible than Obama’s red lines. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has never been more popular. McConnell may well be the next majority leader. It may be too late for tea party “rebranding.” The tea party — at least the savvy groups and figures who don’t crack up upon contact with the real world — is folding right back into the GOP. As I said last month, the big tent is back.