In the wake of a bruising battle over the debt ceiling and now a first-ever credit downgrade, Democrats have launched a salvo of rhetorical attacks on the Tea Party and appear determined to blame the movement for everything from the debt crisis to the sputtering economy.
"I think they're totally unreasonable and doctrinaire and not founded in reality. I think they've been smoking some of that tea, not just drinking it," former Democratic presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said.
The term "Tea Party downgrade" gained currency over the weekend as Democratic leaders took to the airwaves to cast Standard & Poor's decision to downgrade U.S. credit as a Tea Party-triggered event.
They argue that because the rating agency cited the toxic political environment in its decision, the Tea Party is culpable.
Republicans counter that Standard and Poor's also cited the country's failure to tackle its debt problem -- something the Tea Party has urged Washington to do. They accuse Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner of lacking a plan to grow the economy, and suggested he resign over his role in the latest turn of events.
"When you open that refrigerator door, the lights don't come on," Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., told Fox News. "I don't think that Timothy Geithner really has a handle on the fiscal situation here."
The anti-Tea Party talking points didn't start with the downgrade decision Friday. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and others have been hammering the Tea Party throughout and since the debt-ceiling debate, casting the movement as public enemy No. 1 as Washington enters the next phase of deficit-reduction talks and the 2012 campaign season gets underway.
As Reid told reporters last week, he and his colleagues are worried about the "Tea Party direction of this Congress." And despite repeated calls for civility, lawmakers are using some heated rhetoric to try and neutralize the Tea Party's influence.
In a fundraising email last week, Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin condemned what he described as an effort to "appease the hostage-takers," saying most Americans "have no use for the Tea Party extremists."
In a widely reported conversation, Vice President Biden met last week with House Democrats who described Tea Party lawmakers as "terrorists."
Then came the credit downgrade, from AAA to AA+, and the Tea Party swiftly was implicated by Democrats.
"The fact of the matter is that this is essentially a Tea Party downgrade," Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod told CBS' "Face the Nation," where Dean also appeared. "The Tea Party brought us to the brink of a default. ... It was the right thing to do to avoid that default. It was the wrong thing to do to push the country to that point."
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., also said the Standard & Poor's decision was "without question the Tea Party downgrade" because Tea Partiers held bipartisan lawmakers back from a bigger deal. This was a reference to House Speaker John Boehner's decision to walk away from talks with the White House aimed at a $4 trillion deficit-reduction package over concerns about revenue increases.
But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee dismissed the recriminations as mere "talking points."
He said the president, despite his calls for civility, either approves of these messages or has "zero control" over them, and "we need to call him out on it."
Huckabee, who has an eponymous show on Fox News, also lamented, from a creativity standpoint, that politicians were essentially reading from the same card.
"When you hear these words over and over, these are not the words of people who are creative enough to come up with their own talking points," he told Fox News. "These are people who are reading from a script. And it frustrates me that you've got people elected to high positions who can't even come up with their own phrasing, for heaven's sake.
Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, floated another talking point over the weekend, blaming the downgrade on the "Roadblock Republicans" who "forced" Boehner to abandon a bigger deal with the president.
On the other side, Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips said on his group's website that it is Democrats causing this mess. "This is the Obama depression and this is the Democratic downgrade," he said, adding that the Tea Party is also fighting "establishment Republicans" to cut spending.
But Standard & Poor's Managing Director John Chambers said there's "lots of blame to go around."
He agreed with several officials that the environment in Washington is "dysfunctional," and said the fact that the dysfunction put the United States within hours of hitting its debt ceiling was a driving factor in the downgrade decision. The second factor, he said, was the country's "fiscal trajectory."
"The fiscal situation in the United States is not sustainable," he told Fox News.