In theory, it stands for traditional virtues and against unchecked government. In practice, it elevates absurd charlatans that even GOP primary voters reject.
In The Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti takes a furlough from "combat journalism" to explain, in measured civilian prose, his notion of the values held dear by the typical Tea Party voter. The core of his argument:
Limited government is surely an important feature of the Tea Party, but it is an idea that encompasses far more than economics. Limited government presupposes self-government, which presupposes a citizenry that possesses virtue and good character. When Tea Partiers recall the Founders, they summon images of wise and reflective men who instituted constitutional government to protect the liberties of the people against overweening factions. But they also summon images of an earlier age in which (they believe) virtues such as thrift, self-reliance, fidelity, piety, industry, and responsibility were valued...
What motivates the Tea Party is... a feeling that America has come unmoored... Self-reliant, frugal, industrious America could be turned... into a dependent, cynical, spendthrift, licentious America.
Put that way, the Tea Party sounds indisputably sensible. Who'd argue against wisdom, reflectiveness, thrift, self-reliance, fidelity, piety, industry, responsibility, frugality, or industriousness? Most Tea Partiers to whom I've spoken would react warmly to all of those words. And yet. Do the politicians that the Tea Party elevates embody those qualities more than the various Republicans and Democrats who aren't affiliated with the Tea Party movement?
They do not.
Says Continetti, "The Tea Party's moral vision... explains why it has been reluctant to embrace Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy." He conveniently skips over naming the succession of candidates that the Tea Party has embraced. There is Sarah Palin, the unreflective Alaska governor who blew $150,000 on clothing during her VP run, quit her post in the middle of her term to become a reality television star, and isn't anyone's idea of reflective. There is Newt Gingrich, for whom thrift, responsibility, and frugality are not strong suits. Herman Cain stumbled on fidelity, while Rick Perry's support would seem to cast doubt on Continetti's assertion that Tea Partiers insist "the business of government is not to help anyone's profit margin."
Perhaps the Tea Party doesn't actually subscribe to the values that Continetti says. Or perhaps its adherents do, but tend to elevate politicians bereft of those qualities. Does it matter? Neither Mitch Daniels nor Jon Huntsman nor Tim Pawlenty nor Gary Johnson are perfect candidates, but the average Tea Partier prefers Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Donald Trump to all of them. This is not a movement to be trusted, regardless of its core values, because it has proved totally incapable of identifying some of the most obviously irresponsible charlatans in American life. (Remember Glenn Beck? Continetti once called the broadcaster one of the Tea Party's two founders.)
Near the end of his essay, Continetti invokes Thomas Jefferson, one of the few libertarians spoken about favorably in the pages of The Weekly Standard, to warn against concentrating too much power in Washington and extol the importance of checks and balances (lest we find ourselves oppressed). It is therefore worth noting that Rand Paul aside, the Tea Party has done almost nothing to protest the extraordinary expansion of executive power and brazen flouting of Madisonian checks and balances that have been instituted in bipartisan fashion since 9/11.
More often, Tea Partiers are cheering them on.
Talk isn't nothing in politics. The fact that Tea Partiers tout traditional virtues and lament unchecked government suggests they earnestly embrace those things in the abstract. They're mostly well-meaning. Some are effective in advancing their ends, too. But that doesn't mean that the movement as a whole or the typical member inspires confidence, or is deserving of support. Often as not, their purported beliefs are often at odds with their actual influence on American life. And like the big-spending, civil-liberties violating Republican president most of them supported before becoming Tea Partiers, the baffling champions they choose just aren't good at practicing what they preach.