How do political movements end? And how do we assess the impact they had on the political sphere? In the case of the Tea Party, it seems to me that some smart analysts are focusing too much on horserace politics, and less on the bigger picture of how public policy is made.
More than one smart journalist is writing this spring that the less aggressive approach of grassroots groups in this year’s Senate and House primaries means that the Tea Party movement is essentially coming to an end. In a piece at National Journal titled “The Tea Party’s Over”, Josh Kraushaar writes:
2014 is shaping up as the year the Republican establishment is finding its footing. Of the 12 Republican senators on the ballot, six face primary competition, but only one looks seriously threatened: Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. More significantly, only two House Republicans are facing credible competition from tea-party conservatives: Simpson and Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania—fewer than the number of conservative House Republicans facing competition from the establishment wing (Reps. Justin Amash, Walter Jones, and Kerry Bentivolio). With filing deadlines already passed in 23 states, it’s hard to see that dynamic changing.
And in a piece at Democracy, Molly Ball writes:
The Tea Party appears to have lost much of the media presence, grassroots energy, organizational backbone, and fundraising clout that powered it in 2010. That’s not to say it couldn’t have an impact in select races, and doesn’t still have vocal proponents in Congress. But where it was once the engine of the GOP base, it is now more properly regarded as one faction among many in the Republican coalition—and a poorly organized, arriviste faction at that. Social conservatives, by comparison, have been organizing within the GOP for years, creating important, lasting grassroots power centers.
I think these analyses aren’t all wrong, but they miss something important that’s actually taken place here. The Tea Party’s success is not gauged by primaries alone. It’s gauged by how much the Tea Party’s priorities become the Republican Party’s priorities.
The Tea Party’s impact in primaries is largely about putting fear into establishment candidates, whether they knock them off or not. It took them two cycles, but the traditional Republican establishment took the right lessons from the Bennett and Lugar losses. Orrin Hatch spent 2011-12 voting lockstep with Mike Lee. Primary threats made Mike Enzi part of the organizing group for the defund push. Pat Roberts is doing his best to don the winger apparel. Lindsey Graham is trying like mad to re-establish his conservative credentials. Thad Cochran is the exception that proves the rule: it’s no accident that a traditional Washington appropriator who hasn’t modified his ways is the most vulnerable GOP Senator this cycle. So if establishment Republicans understand that they are vulnerable in primaries, and have to pretend to be Tea Partiers when they’re in cycle, is that a sign that the Tea Party is dead – or a sign that it’s had a significant political impact?
Within the realm of Senate primaries, there’s not as clear-cut of a field of candidates this time in the challenger side with appropriators on one side and strong limited government types on the other (see Nebraska, where Tea Party folks are split between Sasse and Osborn). And the story hasn’t been finalized in North Carolina or Georgia. But even considering the relatively narrow issue of primaries, it’s clear that establishment guys who run as establishment guys lose: their path to winning is to appeal to the Tea Party, champion opposition to Obamacare, hoist the musket and run as right-wingers. Is the fact Mitch McConnell is winning his primary today because of Rand Paul a sign of Tea Party weakness? I think not.
This also speaks to the generational point, where we see Tea Partiers elected to lower level offices rise to take more prominent positions, backed by a new infrastructure of groups which can offset traditional fundraising routes. Think about what the roster in the Senate looks like in 2020, after the next two or three cycles. Senators like Chambliss, Cochran, Grassley, Hatch, Isakson, McCain, Roberts, Shelby, and Wicker will all be gone. What will their replacements look like? If the answer is more Tea Party-friendly and less traditional Grand Old Party, then the Tea Party was an unmitigated success. And there’s no question that of the top ten most public and prominent faces of the next generation of Republican policy leadership in DC, most — Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey — are all Tea Partiers or Tea Party-friendly. Only Paul Ryan is outside the Tea Party circle of friendship, and they still like him just fine — heck, he used to work for Empower America.
But of course, horserace politics is not the only arena, or even the most important arena, in which the Tea Party has had a huge impact. Votes that were easy are now difficult. Obamacare’s prioritization has been paramount. ExIm reauthorization went from a voice vote, to nine no votes, to 20 no votes (including Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn), and lobbyists are furious that the House Banking Chairman doesn’t care if they reauthorize it. K Street priorities have been dramatically diminished, and Wall Street is frustrated by the increasing willingness of Republicans to take on the big banks – even in their tax plans. A Republican Party yelling about crony capitalism would’ve seemed absurd in 2006 – now, it’s taken for granted.
Ask John Boehner whether he thinks the Tea Party has influenced policy-making in the House. Ask any conservative or libertarian policy wonk if the market for their ideas in Washington and in the states today is the same as it was in 2006. Or look at the Farm Bill, which in the 2000s was a badge of honor for appropriating GOP politicians, and is now passed in the dark of night (with the rhetorical cloak of “reform/cuts”) to avoid to voter scrutiny and anger. Just as with the backlash over earmarks, what has traditionally been typical Washington deal-making is now something Republicans have to sheepishly defend.
It’s a mistake to assume the Tea Party amounts to Washington-based activist groups and a scattered group of primary challengers. As an organic limited government movement motivated by activist citizens outside the beltway, it has had an enormous impact on reshaping the Republican Party and their policy priorities, in forcing traditional politicians to bend to their will, or at least pretend to until they get re-elected. The old framework where the party elders and K Street set economic policy, temper the social/domestic policy preferences of the coalition, and adopt foreign policy generally as circumstances dictate has been thoroughly smashed. In its place is a new reality which the Tea Party created – a reality which has, and will continue to have, a significant impact on the American political sphere for the foreseeable future.