Has the Tea Party movement become the final casualty of the 2012 elections?

Here are four signs that the end – or at least a diminished future --may be near for once powerful Tea Party phenomenon that lifted Republicans to a House majority in the 2010 mid-term elections.

The first and most significant sign took place last week.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) stripped four of the most outspoken Tea Party members of his caucus of key committee assignments. Representatives Justin Amash (R-Michigan) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) were booted off the House Budget Committee. Reps. Walter Jones (R-North Carolina) and David Schweikert (R-Arizona) were kicked off the House Financial Services Committee.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, GOP leadership aides said they were removed for “not being team players” and they warned: “You want good things in Congress and to have a good career? Better play along nicely.” Two of the Tea Party’s most visible television messengers, Reps. Allen West of Florida and Joe Walsh of Illinois, also lost their re-election bids in November.

The second sign came in the Senate. Tea Party Kingmaker, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) surprised the political world by announcing that he will be resigning from the United States Senate to become the President of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. DeMint said there is “no question” that he can do more to advance the conservative movement as head of a think tank than as a United States Senator who can introduce, amend, block and vote on federal legislation.

And a third sign of the Tea Party’s lower standing came when the incoming chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Jerry Moran, vowed that his organization will become more involved in senatorial primaries to prevent the nomination of Tea Party candidates who are likely to lose in statewide elections. “I don’t think we have any choice but to work to do things better than what we did, based upon the lack of success that we had.” Moran said.

Moran is obviously referring to the failed campaigns of Tea Party candidates that cost the GOP control of the Senate. Those candidates, backed by DeMint, include Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, Nevada’s Sharron Angle, Colorado’s Ken Buck, Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock.  Karl Rove, the GOP strategist, has said that he wants to reorient his America Crossroads organization to intervene in primaries because he was “sick and tired of spending money in races where the moderates and the conservatives had gone at each other and made victory impossible.”

And there is one final sign of the Tea Party’s trouble.

Dick Armey, the former Republican House Majority Leader announced his resignation as head of the influential Tea Party group, Freedomworks.

The group was instrumental in pulling together town hall protests against President Obama’s health care reform law in 2009. Politico reports that the organization paid Mr. Armey $8 million in a separation agreement after a disagreement over how who would receive the proceeds from a book deal earlier this year.

Armey told Politico that “The concern was that the story the press would write was that the whole Tea Party movement was in a state of disarray. That was probably a fairly reality based concern to have, and we wanted the organization to survive and do well and the movement to survive and do well. So that was one of the reasons why we were concerned about me leaving before the election.”

All of this comes at a time when the Tea Party’s popularity is extremely low. A CNN/ORC poll from last month found that 50 percent of Americans now view the Tea Party movement unfavorably compared to only 32 percent who view them favorably. Tea Party candidates lost 12 of 16 races on Election Day.

While I have been critical of many of the Tea Party’s tactics and its solutions to the problems facing our country, I have always maintained the movement was mostly made up of honest, well-meaning citizens who are rightly concerned about profligate government spending and the national debt.

One of the unfair charges that liberals and the mainstream media made against the Tea Party movement was that they were purely racial in their anger at Obama. It is true the group is overwhelmingly white, older group and some members stray into offensive racial rhetoric. But that is not true of the whole movement and I said so at the time.

The truth is the Tea Party is bigger than anger at this president. When I talk with Tea Party activists they also express strong disappointment with George W. Bush’s policies. They do not like the Bush team’s record-breaking deficits, its embrace of Congressional earmarks and passage of an enormous expansion of Medicare entitlements without funding it. These are the people who opposed the Bush plan for comprehensive immigration reform.

That brand of Conservative activism in national debate is a good thing.  But the already decentralized movement – Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, Tea Party Express, and Tea Party Nation -- has become unsustainably fractured and exploited by charlatans and profiteers.

My friend, Bill Kristol, shares this concern and wrote about it in a recent essay for the Weekly Standard:

“Reading about some conservative organizations and Republican campaigns these days, one is reminded of Eric Hoffer’s remark, “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

It may be that major parts of American conservatism have become such a racket that a kind of ‘re-founding’ of the movement as a cause is necessary.