Is the Tea Party washed up? The country better hope not. Like an unruly teenager, the Tea Party movement got too big for its britches; it has now been smacked into place.
Candidates who identified with the movement suffered bruising defeats in Kentucky, Georgia and Idaho in Tuesday’s GOP primaries, on top of earlier thumpings in North Carolina and Ohio.
The punditry and Republican leadership are applauding this smack-down; pointless Tea Party efforts to shut down the government last year and equally useless assaults on senior party members like House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put the fledgling group in establishment crosshairs, with good reason.
Defeats suffered by Tea Party candidates should not be ignored. The GOP needs the energy and conviction of the Tea Party. After a crushing defeat in 2008 and with President George W. Bush leaving office draped in some of the worst poll numbers in memory, Republicans were on life support.
Just two years later, the Tea Party produced an astonishing political turnabout – delivering to barely-elected President Obama one of the great “shellacking” in the country’s history. Outraged over efforts to stem the financial crisis – the Stimulus, TARP, and Cash for Clunkers and so on – and the consequent damage to the nation’s fiscal picture, the Tea Party took root. ObamaCare was the potent fertilizer.
Rick Santelli’s memorable rant on CNBC about paying for “losers’ mortgages” and how the government was “promoting bad behavior” when it helped out homeowners who had gotten in over their heads hit a nerve across the country.
Hard-working men and women were fed up with the bail-outs of banks and underwater homeowners; they saw our nation’s debt and deficits soaring, and rightly concluded that their kids’ futures were in jeopardy. They wanted to know what the government was going to do for them.
Liberals, including President Obama, consistently underestimated the Tea Party, even when that group engineered the almost unimaginable election of a Republican –Scott Brown of Massachusetts – in the nation’s bluest state.
When thousands of protests sprang up around the country on tax day, 2009, the president still didn’t get it.
When midterm election time came, Tea Partiers turned out in droves to make their voices heard. Voter turnout in 2010 was nearly 42% -- the highest for a midterm election since 1982. The GOP captured 6 Senate seats and 63 seats in the House.
Liberals like to portray Tea Partiers as right-wing loons, harboring extreme and dangerous views. In some cases, they are right. Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comment, Christine O’Donnell’s forays into witchcraft, or more recently Matt Bevin’s support for cock fighting delight late-night TV audiences, and cause legitimate heartburn for the GOP.
But it’s important to remember that even the New York Times, surveying Tea Party protesters, found them “wealthier and more educated” than the general public. These are middle class citizens who worry that their government is broken, and that no one is standing up for their concerns, and their values.
The Tea Party’s success in 2010 went to the collective heads of many involved in the movement, or at least to the heads of those like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who believed he had won a mandate to shake up the Republican Party and to push for his views on social as well as fiscal issues.
Like an adolescent, Cruz challenged the authority of his elders in a forum where tenure and hierarchy are respected. He has won no friends, but gained considerable notoriety.
His contributions to the government shutdown last fall hurt the Tea Party brand (which recorded the lowest approval ratings in its short history) and torpedoed Republican standing – all for naught.
Cruz and others misread the success of the Tea Party. Their blockbuster early results are not because they oppose abortion or same-sex marriage; voters were not rallying to their harsh views on immigration.
Their fame, and winnings, came from their stance against wasteful government spending and burgeoning deficits that threatened the country’s future.
They lit a flame of fiscal watchfulness – a flame that is flickering now as the crisis recedes, but that will be fanned soon enough by growing deficits down the road. The U.S. needs that focus, and the GOP needs that energy.
Why? Because, unhappily, Americans see the Republican Party as too cozy with Big Business. The Chamber of Commerce spent more than $12 million backing mainstream Republicans over Tea Party challengers, attempting to snuff out its growing influence. That unprecedented involvement in selecting candidates will only spur distrust.
While the interests of business leaders are often aligned with those of the average American – less regulation, lower taxes, a strong defense and so on – there are clearly instances where those paths diverge.
Americans rightly suspect the role of powerful corporations (and unions) in setting policy – why do we need tax breaks for NASCAR or guarantees for giant farms?
The proliferation of lobbyists in Washington is alarming, as is the selling of legislative favors. It is also bipartisan, but because Republicans tend to run candidates like Mitt Romney, a successful and wealthy businessman, instead of community activists like our current president, the public identifies the GOP as more entrenched with the business community.
No one is going to leap from their Barcalounger to vote for Big Business. They will, however, rally around average citizens trying to keep a lid on our government’s spending and keep our country strong.
The Tea Party needs to return to its roots, retrench and gather its momentum.
The GOP leadership, in turn, needs to work with leaders from the upstart movement. The Tea Party brings much-needed balance, and energy, to the table.