For more than two years, the Tea Party has driven our national
politics. It gave full voice to anti-Obama anger. It framed last fall's
elections as a battle over spending and the growth of government. When its
activists swept Republicans into power, the Tea Party established the
contours of the current debate over deficits and reforming entitlement
programs, which follow conservative principles much more closely than the
Republicans' limited formal power -- they control only the House -- should
But last week, this tide seemed to peak, and then begin to roll back. Republican House leaders, having pushed through a budget written by
Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin that embodies the Tea
Party ideal of a government drastically scaled back, suddenly flinched.
They signaled that important components of the budget would not move ahead,
in particular a plan to privatize Medicare. The chairman of the House Ways
and Means Committee dismissed
that idea flat out. John Boehner, the House
speaker, provided cover. ''It's Paul's idea'' he said. ''Other people have
This signifies something both important and under-appreciated, as
meaningful as was the Tea Party's rise. For all the attention and the
soaring testimonies to the movement's power, sending its representatives to
Washington was only the first step. The true measure of its success was
always going to be what effect these newcomers had on Republican leaders
and the government they sought to change.
Now, an answer is coming into focus. The Tea Party may continue to
alter races across the country, and could also shape the Republican
presidential field. But it appears to have reached the limit of its
influence in Washington. Here, where it counts most, the Tea Party is
looking like a spent force.
There are a number of reasons for this. The outsized political
personalities most closely associated with the movement have started to
fade. Glenn Beck is waning. Sarah Palin's presidential hopes are passing
into rapid eclipse. Even Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota --
founder of the congressional Tea Party caucus, heir to Palin, reliably
batty provocateur, and once-proud supporter of the Ryan budget plan -- has
begun cautiously backing away.
She is doing so for the same reason as everybody else. The Tea Party
message, so seductive in the abstract, can be deadly in its particulars to
any politician seeking a broader appeal. As that doctrine is put into
practice, even prospectively, voters are beginning to balk.
During the spring recess, for example, many Republicans went home to
find angry constituents alarmed that they might lose their government
benefits. In a special congressional election in two weeks in a
conservative district in upstate New York, momentum appears to have swung
to the Democratic challenger, who has mercilessly attacked the Republican
incumbent for supporting the Ryan plan. A recent USA Today/Gallup
shows that Americans' views of the Tea Party are growing more negative,
with 47 percent unfavorable and just 33 percent positive. No wonder
Republicans in Washington are having second thoughts.
Their retreat has not gone unnoticed. In Monday's Washington Post
one frustrated Tea Party leader memorably assailed Boehner as
''surrenderist.'' But other Tea Party leaders, the grammatically creative
and all the rest, are to some degree complicit in this slippage.
''They seem to have given up on holding the big rallies on [Capitol]
Hill and fanned out across the country,'' one top aide to a conservative
congressman complained to me. ''That's too bad, because that is what was
visible and effective in Washington.''
It's important to note that the Tea Party itself -- its ethos,
principles, and many committed activists -- has not disappeared, and shows
little sign of doing so. Rather, it has simply been impeded by a political
reality that many of its members angrily reject. One possibility is that
the movement could channel its frustration into the presidential primaries.
Another is that it could abandon the Republican Party. A new Gallup
shows that 60 percent of Tea Party members would like to see a third
party compete with Democrats and Republicans.
Most worrisome for Republicans is that these possibilities might
merge and give rise to an independent presidential challenger. The Tea
Party's march on Washington may have stalled for now. But that doesn't mean
that it won't reconnoiter and try again.
Joshua Green writes a weekly political column for the Boston Globe