Could Election 2012 Be Going Any Worse for the Tea Party?

Given the candidates on offer and the pressure to rally around the eventual GOP nominee, the movement is likely to be reabsorbed into the establishment.

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First Sarah Palin didn't run, and the documentary about her disappointed at the box office. Then a series of Tea Party friendly candidates jumped into the race. But neither Michele Bachmann nor Rick Perry nor Herman Cain could withstand the scrutiny of a presidential run. 

As if to underscore the reversal of fortune, Bachmann, whose star was born with the Tea Party, finished sixth in the Iowa caucuses. And the winner of the first-in-the-nation contest? It was a virtual tie between Mitt Romney, the preferred nominee of moderates in the establishment, and Rick Santorum, arguably the man whose political philosophy is most antithetical to that of Tea Partiers, being the closest to the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush. Now all the candidates not named Romney seem to be fading, save Ron Paul, who has been deemed an unacceptable candidate by the Republican establishment, the religious right, and neocons alike.

What happened to the Tea Party?

Early as it is in primary season, with the GOP race still focused on New Hampshire, and South Carolina after that, there doesn't seem to be any plausible scenario that will permit the Tea Party to maintain a consistent small government message and play any meaningful role in Election 2012. If Mitt Romney wins, the movement, or the vast majority of those in it, will find themselves supporting a flip-flopping Northeastern moderate who once passed an individual mandate in health care -- a calculated compromise with views antithetical to everything Tea Partiers have preached.

Newt Gingrich is no savior. He wanted an individual mandate in health care at the federal level; favored No Child Left Behind, an unprecedented federal intervention in education; supported Medicare Part D, a brand new, budget-busting drug entitlement; supported "comprehensive immigration reform," perhaps the most divisive-among-conservatives policy initiative of the aughts; urged the passage of TARP; and he even favored the infamous Harriet Miers nomination, a George W. Bush misstep that caused many of his most loyal supporters to rebel.

As bad -- or worse -- for the Tea Party would be a two-man race between Romney and Santorum, who joined in the big spending of the Bush years and explicitly rejects the individualistic, "don't tread on me" political philosophy that defines the public rhetoric of Tea Partiers. As Will Wilkinson puts it:

Mr Santorum explicitly rejects the "libertarianish right" and "the whole idea of personal autonomy", as well as the notion that "government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low", while wholeheartedly embracing the paternalistic imposition of traditional morals. It is entirely possible that Mr Santorum is the least libertarianish candidate in the Republican field. Indeed, I'm not sure there's a single issue on which Mr Santorum comes closer than Mr Romney to the alleged tea-party movement ideals of small government, fiscal responsibility, and individual liberty. And, obviously, Mr Santorum does much worse in these respects than Ron Paul.

And Paul himself? Should he improbably win the nomination, it would deeply divide Tea Partiers, who haven't done much grappling with the different attitudes toward foreign policy in their coalition. And if -- or rather when -- he loses, the GOP will lose some libertarians who won't back any other candidate, potentially making a third-party challenge from Gary Johnson more powerful, especially if Paul endorses him.

What's a Tea Partier to do?

The movement could focus on getting conservative candidates elected to Congress, but after the victories of 2010 they're bound to face the law of diminishing marginal returns, and won't benefit from as friendly a media environment. That's because every four years most Americans who cover or pay attention to politics obsess about the presidential race above all else.

Beating Barack Obama is so important to so many Republicans that it'll be very difficult for the Tea Party to avoid rallying around the eventual nominee, just as many conservatives who long claimed to loathe John McCain jumped on the bandwagon as soon as they had the most absurd of excuses (vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin). Look for Tea Party-affiliated voters to behave similarly in 2012. They'll likely rally around the Republican nominee, increasing his chance of winning the election, but in doing so they'll fundamentally change what it means to be a Tea Partier: no longer will it require anything like ideological purity or even having been consistent on certain litmus test issues; winning Tea Party support will just require being the Republican in an important election.

Likely as not, the only significant accomplishments of the Tea Party will be whatever role it played in the 2010 midterms, helping to bring forth the Paul Ryan budget, and the domestic and defense spending cuts triggered by the failure of the super-committee, if they're allowed to take place. Likely as not, Election 2012 is going to see Tea Partier become indistinguishable from all the other Republicans who want their nominee to win the election, no matter how compromised or impure he is. Of course, some would argue that the Tea Party was just a charade all along, but I've talked to enough earnest Tea Partiers since 2008 to be persuaded that at minimum a lot of Republicans believed all the hype. How will they react to the anticlimax?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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