So the other day Dave Weigel tweeted: “So the Freedom Caucus, far from throwing the GOP into disarray, forced a significant upgrade in the speaker race. Ryan > McCarthy.” Weigel is completely correct about this, and Eric Cantor bitching about how unrealistic the Tea Party demands are is hilarious bonus awesome. How unrealistic are those demands? Because they’ve gotten a lot of them out of the party, even if they’ve been reluctant to accept them.
Gallup has a poll out today showing fewer Americans than ever identifying as members of the Tea Party. And that’s actually fine, because movements like these are temporary – they adapt and change over time, and are synthesized into the different parties.
Six years in, the legacy of the Tea Party is clear: it has dramatically shifted the Overton Window on expectations for policy within the Republican Party, fundamentally altering what can conceivably be achieved.
In 2010, the Tea Party primaried a bunch of Republicans against the wishes of the establishment. Frequently, and not without good reason, they were criticized and maligned for shooting the party in the foot. There are mitigating circumstances but still. Some of the candidates were kind of ridiculous.
But out of that ridiculousness came awesomeness. The Tea Party wave produced some of the best Republican politicians in a long time. The most interesting rising conservative stars at the moment are Ryan, Lee, Cruz, Rubio, and Paul – only one of whom truly comes from the pre-Tea Party era.
So what do these radicals do when they get into office? In 2011, they proposed the Cut Cap and Balance plan. It was absurd on its face, a crazy idea no one took seriously. But Republican leadership had no plan for anything. So what happened? The BCA! Which the Tea Party then OPPOSED! They do this time and again. The Tea Party made possible the most important fiscal victory in Washington in decades – and they didn’t like it!
There was a backlash of course. John Boehner decided he needed to bring the Republican Study Committee to heel, so he installed loyalist Steve Scalise – never realizing that in doing so, he was laying the foundation for the House Freedom Caucus that would seal his fate.
The Freedom Caucus, largely a Tea Party entity, started claiming scalps. They took down Boehner because he wouldn’t let Congress work the way it should, then they treated Kevin McCarthy like a sad clown. Then they put their weight behind a moderate, Daniel Webster, who no one had ever heard of. The end result is… Speaker Paul Ryan, which wasn’t supposed to be possible. And who does he choose as his new chief of staff? David Hoppe, a solid conservative with scars from a dozen prior battles.
What a difference from just a few years ago. Remember the first Ryan roadmap plan from back in 2008, the one that the whole GOP freaked out about and many moderates worried was going to ruin the party? The original sponsors were this obscure budget ranker and this nobody senator from South Carolina, who are now respectively the president of the Heritage Foundation and the Speaker of the House. And now the roadmap is pilloried as this horrible squish idea!
Conservatives may not like what Ryan’s speakership may bring, as Matt Lewis notes. But there is no question the Tea Party has now forced into office the most conservative and talented leading congressman of his generation. And again – they don’t really want him! He’s not good enough! Whenever they win it’s not enough, and that’s great!
The Tea Party has become this big, dumb, lumbering character from a Wodehouse story, who stumbles and complains and screws up at every turn… and yet somehow leaves previously unimaginable, almost impossibly positive change in its wake.
The Tea Party is Tommy Boy.