The bottom line is sobering. Anyone concerned about the damage Tea Party forces are inflicting on American politics needs to draw several hard-headed conclusions.
For one, at least three successive national election defeats will be necessary to even begin to break the determination and leverage of Tea Party adherents. Grassroots Tea Partiers see themselves in a last-ditch effort to save “their country,” and big-money ideologues are determined to undercut Democrats and sabotage active government. They are in this fight for the long haul. Neither set of actors will stand down easily or very soon.
Also worth remembering is that “moderate Republicans” barely exist right now. Close to two-thirds of House Republicans voted against bipartisan efforts to reopen the federal government and prevent U.S. default on loan obligations, and Boehner has never repudiated such extortionist tactics. Tea Partiers may not call for another shutdown right away, but they will continue to be able to draw most GOP legislators and leaders into aggressive efforts to obstruct and delay. In the electorate, moreover, more than half of GOP voters sympathize with the Tea Party and cheer on obstructionist tactics, and the remaining Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are disorganized and divided in their views of the likes of Ted Cruz.
Speaking of which, Cruz is very well positioned to garner unified Tea Party support in the 2016 GOP presidential primaries. During the last election cycle, no far-right candidate ever consolidated sustained grassroots Tea Party support, as those voters hopped from Rick Perry to Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum. But this time, Cruz may very well enjoy unified and enthusiastic grassroots Tea Party support from the beginning of the primary election season. In the past, less extreme GOP candidates have always managed to garner the presidential nomination, but maybe not this time. And even if a less extreme candidate finally squeaks through, Cruz will set much of the agenda for Republicans heading into 2016.
When it comes to “reining in” the Tea Party, business associations and spokespeople may talk bigger than they will act. They have lots to say to reporters, but they show few signs of mounting the kind of organized, sustained efforts it would take to counter Tea Party enthusiasm and funding. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent decades using right-wing energy to help elect Republicans, who, once elected, are supposed to focus on tax cuts and deregulation. It used to be relatively easy to con Christian-right voters with flashy election symbolism and then soft-pedal their preferences once Republicans took office. Today’s far right is unmistakably another cup of tea. Even as business funders realize this, however, they will be tempted to keep replaying the old strategies, because turning to Democrats will usually not seem acceptable, and it will be almost impossible in many states and districts to mount GOP primary challenges from the middle-right without improving Democratic prospects in general election contests.