The Gadsden flag, which flew proudly over the 2010 midterm elections, now lies in tatters — rent by internal disagreements, losses among its most visible standard-bearers and a growing sense that the tea party movement, which once looked like it could transform American politics, will soon be nothing more than a blip in the country’s collective memory.
The movement’s journey from boom to bust is the story of American politics writ large. The tea party’s ups and downs (in 2012, mostly downs) highlight some of the key forces shaping today’s battles — from the fissures that threaten to destroy the Republican Party to the perils of a leaderless or multi-leader effort to the difference between proving a point and winning.
No one person more embodies the fruitful-turned-fractious relationship that the tea party has enjoyed with the political world (and itself) than the man whom the movement made speaker of the House after the 2010 elections: John Boehner.
Fueled by the grass-roots energy and, in some places, anger of tea party members, Republicans gained more than five dozen House seats in 2010, a sweep that put Boehner — an institutionalist’s institutionalist — at the top of a GOP he didn’t really recognize anymore.
For the first two years, Boehner was a SINO (Speaker in Name Only) as he regularly saw his legislative and political goals upended by the purists in his party who regarded compromise as capitulation. The debt-ceiling fight of 2011 was a sign of things to come for Boehner. The speaker engaged in long and serious talks with President Barack Obama aimed at not simply raising the country’s debt limit but also addressing our long-term budget problems. But as it became clear that Boehner was going to have to give to get, the tea party crowd in the House, who saw the debt ceiling vote as a chance to tie the government’s purse strings, made clear that they wouldn’t be going along to get along.
Then came the 2012 elections, a rebuke of the tea party’s ideas and leaders. Sensing an opportunity to wrest control of his party, or at least the House GOP, back from the fringe, Boehner went on offense. He kicked Reps. Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Justin Amash (Mich.) and Dave Schweikert (Ariz.) off plum committees after the election, insisting that they had been insufficiently loyal to the party leadership on key votes — the most notable of which was on the budget proposal put forward by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), the vice-presidential nominee.
Stories of Boehner’s re-emergence were crafted, citing his renewed power over his Republican colleagues and using the tea party committee purge as example No. 1. Emboldened by his newfound strength, Boehner set out to show some force in his negotiations with Obama over the “fiscal cliff.” He introduced “Plan B,” a bill that would preserve the George W. Bush-era tax cuts on everyone except those making $1 million or more a year, and he held a 51-second news conference pledging that it would pass the House and daring the president to ignore it.
Twenty-four hours later, Boehner released a statement admitting defeat. Plan B never made it to the House floor. The speaker and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia, couldn’t come close to securing the votes required.
The defeat was spurred by the tea party, which saw Boehner’s plan not as a way to put political pressure on the president but as an unnecessary sacrifice of a core principle. That principle? It’s never OK to raise taxes on anyone. As Boehner’s strategy sunk, and with it, his power as speaker, it was the lawmakers he had punished who celebrated most heartily.
“Republican leadership thought they could silence conservatives when they kicked us off our Committees,” Huelskamp said in a statement after Plan B’s demise. “I’m glad that enough of my colleagues refused to back down from the threats and intimidation, thus preventing the Conference from abandoning our principles.”
Huelskamp’s victory, of course, was Pyrrhic. With Boehner marginalized, Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, have been left to sort out a fiscal cliff deal — one that almost certainly will be worse for Republicans than what Boehner proposed.
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It wasn’t just in legislative battles where the tea party proved a point but lost the fight in 2012.
Indiana’s Senate race showed the promise and peril of the movement. Sen. Dick Lugar, who was first elected in 1976 and had been easily re-elected since then, faced a primary challenge from his ideological right from state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a little-known but decidedly more tea-party-friendly candidate.
Lugar’s problems weren’t solely ideological — he didn’t live in the state, rarely visited it and ignored advice from national party strategists to take Mourdock’s challenge seriously. But the sense that he tended toward moderation and, gasp, occasionally supported Obama on matters of foreign policy, didn’t sit well with the GOP primary electorate.
Mourdock summed up his view of government succinctly the day after he beat Lugar. “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise,” he said on CNN. “I hope to build a conservative majority in the U.S. Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government.”
He never got a chance to see that vision realized, because of a bit of political hara-kiri he committed in a late-October debate with Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly. Asked about abortion, Mourdock paused, then said that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”
Days later, Mitt Romney carried the Hoosier State by 10 points, but Mourdock lost to Donnelly by six points — a defeat that establishment Republicans immediately used to argue that the tea party’s political compass was either badly miscalibrated or nonexistent.
Mourdock’s win-then-loss epitomized the tea party’s steep decline, but he was far from the only GOP candidate who sacrificed victory at the altar of ideology. Rep. Allen West, running in a swing district in Florida, spent time speculating about how many communists there might be in Congress. (Eighty-one, in case you were wondering.) When asked about his feelings on abortion, Rep. Joe Walsh, running in a Democratic-leaning, suburban Chicago district, insisted that “there is no such exception as life of the mother.” (He lost by nine points.) And a tea party heroine and former presidential hopeful, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), was re-elected by just over 4,000 votes against an unheralded Democratic challenger in a suburban Twin Cities district that leans heavily Republican.
The tea party didn’t catch a single break in Election 2012. Take Missouri, where the defeat of Todd “legitimate rape” Akin in the Senate race was laid at the feet of the tea party. The problem with that theory? The major tea party groups had backed Akin’s primary opponents; he won on the strength of his support among social conservatives.
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Beset by challenges on all sides, the tea party needed a leader. Instead, in early September, it got an attempted armed coup — a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction scenario in which former Texas congressman Richard Armey tried to seize control of FreedomWorks, a pillar of the movement. (Armey brought an aide with a handgun holstered at his hip to the FreedomWorks headquarters as he attempted to take over. And no, that is not a joke.)
Armey’s mission came up short — he took $8 million to part ways with the organization (not a bad consolation prize) — but that it happened at all exposed the tea party’s fractures to a wide audience.
At the heart of the schism was the question of whether this outsider movement should acclimate itself to the establishment it rebelled against a few years ago. Could the tea party come in from the cold and enjoy the warm embrace of acceptance, or at least tolerance, from the mainstream GOP? And if not, how could it survive without national leaders to help it become something more than an insurgent effort? In other words, the tea party needed a second act but had no director. And no one could even agree on what the script should be. The result? Chaos.
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If the tea party was the bright, shiny object that the political world gazed at in amazement in 2010, by 2012 it looked like a toy that had been discarded as a child moved on to bigger and better things.
To be clear: All wasn’t — and isn’t — lost for the tea party. While 2012 was far from its best year, the movement again proved its ability to influence Republican primary fights. Can you imagine Herman Cain as a relevant force in the presidential race without the power of the tea party?
And yet, its success also showed its limitations in 2012. Mourdock won’t be in the Senate next year. Nor Allen West in the House. A movement can become something bigger only if it understands the difference between winning a battle and winning a war — or between a moral victory and an actual one. The tea party won a few of the former in 2012 but almost none of the latter.
For failing even when it seemed to succeed, the tea party had the worst year in Washington. Congrats, or something.
Chris Cillizza is a political reporter for The Washington Post and anchors the Fix blog.