The Tea Party Is Dead, but Conservativism Reincarnates

The threat suggested by a conservative contingent of senators to block Obamacare by stopping government entirely is a reminder that the always nebulous Tea Party was never a thing, but an ideology. The conservatism is merely reborn.

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The threat suggested by a conservative contingent of senators — including Utah's Mike Lee, Texas' Ted Cruz, and Florida's Marco Rubio — is perhaps the quintessence of right-wing anti-government sentiment. In order to block Obamacare, a policy blasted as being a manifestation of socialism, the senators propose government be halted entirely. It's a reminder that the always nebulous Tea Party, the frayed remnants of which seem entirely on-board with the proposal, was never a thing, but an ideology. And while there may be fewer teabag-hatted red-white-and-blue protests, the ideological eruption has hardly waned at all.

Last month, David Graham at The Atlantic documented the various times — 18 in total — that headlines declared the movement dead. There's no question that the activism has tapered; in contrast to 2010 and 2011, we now see far fewer public demonstrations. Interest in "Tea Party rally" on Google peaked in early 2010, gradually tapering off but for a few spikes — the largest recent one coming at the tail end of the revelations of IRS targeting of Tea Party groups.

So how to explain Lee's new plan? In July, Lee wrote a letter to Senate Republican leadership demanding that they back the inclusion of a measure to defund the Affordable Care Act in a government funding bill that needs to be passed before the end of September. If the measure isn't included, Lee encourages his colleagues to flatly oppose the funding resolution. Conservative activist group FreedomWorks is tracking support for the effort; 13 senators have signed Lee's letter and 29 have cosponsored Cruz's amendment to defund Obamacare.

What's interesting, though, is that the push didn't stem from the "Tea Party." It stemmed from the senators themselves. In fact, when we earlier this week noted town hall anger about health care reform, the trademark of the nascent Tea Party movement in 2009, we highlighted a video of a confrontation with Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina. "This is what the Tea Party wants to know," Pittenger is asked: will you back the Lee effort? But the site of the person who posted the video — Constitutional War — makes no mention of the Tea Party. Instead, the focus is broadly anti-government. The issue at hand is not a Tea Party issue. It is a heavily conservative one.

The party establishment, as the Huffington Post thoroughly documented on Wednesday, strongly opposes Lee's threat to block government funding — a threat that, if enacted, would shut the government down.

But more senior members of the GOP caucus — most prominently Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) — have said they see the idea as ill-conceived and unreasonable. In an unexpected twist, the veteran lawmakers who are not exactly known for being voices of moderation are appealing for a more deliberate approach. They worry that most of the nation simply is not ready to shutter the government just to hamstring Obamacare.

And, further, that a government shutdown could end up doing the most damage to the party. "The only way that strategy works is if you're going to take the hostage and shoot it," Coburn told the Huffington Post. "Which means you're never going to open the government back up until Obama says uncle." Which wouldn't happen, meaning the party would be setting itself up for failure.

At The New Republic, Jonathon Cohn notes that the "shooting the hostage" analogy was also used at the town hall held by Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois.

"If you’re going to take a hostage," Schock says, "you gotta be willing to shoot it.” Another attendee quickly quipped, “kill it.”

That's the ideology, manifest. The government is an obstruction, full stop. Block Obamacare? Sure. Kill the government in total? Even better. The far right's opposition to institutional governance — including Republican party leadership — manifested as the Tea Party a few years ago. Now it manifests as the Tea Party, and as pseudo-libertarianism, and as deeply conservative senators hoping to score political points.

The Tea Party may die many deaths, but the conservative spirit reincarnates.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.