Why Everyone Loves to Blame the Tea Party

For Democrats, it's proof the GOP is captive to extremists; for Republicans, it's a scapegoat for the party's electoral failures. But the movement is weaker than ever.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Tea Party has become a convenient scapegoat for both the left and the establishment right. If it weren’t for these nasty reactionaries, both groups fret, Washington would not be gridlocked, Republicans (nice, sane ones) would be able to win some elections outside the most rock-ribbed, gerrymandered districts, and our political climate would not be beset by so much nastiness and vitriol. Contemplating the imminent defeat of Barry Goldwater in the fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review, Richard Schlatter of Rutgers University (quoted in Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm) wrote that it had “demonstrated that we are all part of the American Establishment.” Today’s Tea Party has created a similar sense of solidarity, as the writers of the “Is the Party Over?” symposium show.

Theda Skocpol argues that the Tea Party continues to have a powerful hold on the Republican Party, and that “this radical movement” isn’t going anywhere, despite pundits’ repeated, optimistic reports of its demise. Alan Abramowitz posits that the movement has badly damaged the Republican Party and cowed GOP leaders into submitting to its unpopular goals. Sean Wilentz insists that the anti-government zeal of the Tea Partiers shouldn’t be compared to Jacksonian populism, which defended the Union against both rogue states and moneyed interests. Leslie H. Gelb and Michael Kramer point to the GOP’s ongoing confusion when it comes to foreign policy, with the Tea Party driving a strain of “hawkish isolationism” reminiscent of Goldwater. Christopher S. Parker says Tea Partiers’ opposition to Obama isn’t “driven solely by racial resentment,” but by “a more general perception of social change”; somewhat perplexingly, he then confidently predicts that the movement will lose intensity once Obama is out of office and “go underground” altogether if a white male Democrat becomes president. And Dave Weigel notes that Tea Partiers will be better prepared for the 2016 nomination battle and already appear to have a strong potential champion in Texas Senator Ted Cruz. With the possible exception of Parker, whose argument contradicts itself, all seem to darkly foresee, in the words of Gelb and Kramer, “a stronger, even more vociferous Tea Party,” with pernicious effects on the American polity.

Democrats like to blame the Tea Party for everything because it satisfies their conviction that the GOP is captive to extreme interests; the Republican establishment does so because it allows elites to evade blame for the party’s electoral and philosophical failures. I don’t want to be the latest in the long line of writers to pronounce the Tea Party on its deathbed, only to have it flare up and prove me wrong. As Skocpol rightly notes, the Tea Party’s widely distributed, passionately engaged grassroots network combines with the clout of well-funded advocacy groups to create a potent squeeze on lawmakers from above and below. Last summer’s fight over defunding Obamacare, and the government shutdown that resulted, showed that, if anything, the movement’s activists have only become more aggressive in wielding this power. Incumbent Republican senators, even quite conservative ones like Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, face primary challengers who see them as excessively conciliatory; House Speaker John Boehner seems helplessly in thrall to his caucus’s most radical members and the outside agitators that egg them on. (Or he did—more on that in a bit.) Cruz clearly isn’t going anywhere, and the next election could well deliver him still more allies in his Washington-based war on Washington.

Nonetheless, in relative terms, I see a Tea Party whose influence is gradually declining, not increasing. Its clout in Congress appears to be on the wane. Its ability to win intra-GOP contests is being newly challenged. And the organizational advantages it once enjoyed are no longer so clear-cut. The GOP rank and file that greeted the movement as an exciting infusion of new energy now regard it with weariness and skepticism. The far right, in turn, has focused much of its ire on the Republican Party itself, with increasing threats to start a third-party splinter movement. This seems unlikely to happen, but it reflects Tea Partiers’ frustration at their inability to control the GOP more fully.

We should not, however, expect a waning Tea Party to mean a suddenly rosy political landscape. The Bush years weren’t exactly the glory days of bipartisan compromise, and the parties’ major philosophical differences remain. Well before the Tea Party proved its clout in 2010, Obamacare failed to get a single Republican vote, and cap-and-trade was hung out to dry. And while anguished GOP elites love to wring their hands about how to bring to heel the crazies in their midst, there’s little evidence they’re any better at winning modern elections than the insurgents they disdain.

have the advantage of writing this just after December’s bipartisan budget deal, the first time Congress has passed a full budget (as opposed to a continuing resolution) since 2009 and a promising signal for bipartisan compromise. The political and legislative landscape now looks very different from the immediate aftermath of the government shutdown, on which many of the symposium’s writers based their conclusions. (In time, this apparent thaw may appear just as temporary and oversold as the shutdown’s effects do now—although it does mean no one, not even Cruz, can shut down the government until at least October, when the current appropriations bills run out.)

It now appears that the Tea Party and its allied infrastructure—the Tea Party Industrial Complex—are no longer in charge of Boehner and the House GOP. Groups like Heritage Action, the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Club for Growth confronted a politician in Paul Ryan, the broker of the budget deal, who had enough credibility that he couldn’t be shouted down with cries of “RINO!” Their cheerleading for the pointless defund-Obamacare strategy lost them the trust of the vast middle swath of House GOPers who consider themselves conservative but not irresponsible. Cruz has seen his stock fall with his Senate colleagues, several of whom excoriated him at a private lunch during the shutdown. And the Texan seems to have been at least slightly cowed: Though he took a position against the budget deal, he didn’t stage a filibuster or otherwise crusade against it.

In the end, 169 Republicans—nearly three-quarters of the caucus—voted for the deal, flouting threats from the outside groups, whom Boehner took the opportunity to berate. (The normally stoic speaker famously clutched the sides of his podium and cried, “Are you kidding me?” when asked about the conservative groups denouncing the deal.) Now, aides to House Republicans tell me there’s a sense of relief that Boehner has finally seized the tiller. The House GOP remains extremely conservative and isn’t going to suddenly start passing a bunch of liberal legislation. But there’s a feeling that the chaotic caucus may now be less whipsawed by outside forces.

The next test will be the upcoming round of GOP primaries. Skocpol speculates that “when it comes to ‘reining in’ the Tea Party, business associations and spokespeople may talk bigger than they will act.” Perhaps. They’ve certainly failed to contain it in the past. Some of their tactics have been shockingly clumsy: The base reacted rather badly when The New York Times last year reported on the creation of the Conservative Victory Project, a primary-intervention initiative funded by the Karl Rove-led American Crossroads PAC. The front-page story framed the project as an effort to stop Iowa Congressman Steve King from becoming a senator. (King has since decided to remain in the House.) In an anti-establishment political climate, there’s an inherent difficulty in the establishment’s efforts to reassert itself: Its support can easily be turned against the candidates it favors, as their opponents pillory them for being in cahoots with the forces of the old order. Rove, meanwhile, is an imperfect vehicle for reform, having reportedly lost credibility with donors after his groups spent more than $300 million in 2012 to little effect.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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