The Tea Party’s demise

Groups may come and go, but the idea of limited govern­ment lives

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Drew John­son Drew John­son is an ed­i­to­rial writer at The Wash­ing­ton Times.

The Tea Party dies at age 5. Its death will al­low a bet­ter move­ment to grow. The Tea Party, the pop­u­lar po­lit­i­cal move­ment that grew from wide­spread pub­lic con­cern over the growth of govern­ment, died on Tues­day, June 24, in Mis­sis­sippi.

Dur­ing its short life, the Tea Party grew from a pas­sion­ate patch­work quilt of grass-roots ef­forts to be­come an im­por­tant and ef­fec­tive po­lit­i­cal force ca­pa­ble of al­ter­ing elec­tions and in­flu­enc­ing na­tional, state and lo­cal poli­cies. It died a frac­tured, in­ef­fec­tive con­fed­er­acy of dis­cor­dant co­ter­ies that bore lit­tle re­sem­blance to its orig­i­nal in­car­na­tion.

The mod­ern Tea Party was born on Feb. 19, 2009, when CNBC busi­ness news edi­tor Rick San­telli made an on-air plea for a mod­ern-day ver­sion of the Bos­ton Tea Party. Mr. San­telli claimed “govern­ment [was] pro­mot­ing bad be­hav­ior” by pass­ing out tax­payer-funded bailouts. He was con­cerned — cor­rectly, as it turned out — that work­ing Amer­i­cans would end up on the hook for bad de­ci­sions and ir­re­spon­si­ble poli­cies.

Mr. San­telli’s rant quickly went vi­ral, prompt­ing mil­lions of Amer­i­cans to par­tic­i­pate in Tea Party ral­lies and join Tea Party groups in all 50 states to protest bailouts and the growth of the federal govern­ment.

In its early stages, the Tea Party’s mes­sage of limited govern­ment, re­duced federal spend­ing and lower taxes proved to be broadly ap­peal­ing. That should have come as lit­tle sur­prise, since polls in­di­cate that up­ward of 75 per­cent of Amer­i­cans think govern­ment is too big, too pow­er­ful and spends too much.

As a re­sult, the Tea Party struck a chord. Since the move­ment’s found­ing phi­los­o­phy high­lighted con­cerns shared by the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans, re­gard­less of age, race, re­li­gion, in­come, ed­u­ca­tion or sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, turnouts at early Tea Party ral­lies of­ten reached into the tens, and even hun­dreds, of thou­sands, rep­re­sent­ing a broad cross-sec­tion of Amer­ica.

For a time, it ap­peared pos­si­ble that the Tea Party would re­de­fine, or per­haps even re­place, the Repub­li­can Party. Un­til, that is, the Tea Party con­tracted a se­ries of ill­nesses and ail­ments, which ul­ti­mately led to its death.

First, a num­ber of na­tional Tea Party out­fits sprouted in hopes of seiz­ing on the move­ment’s brand, sup­port­ers and lu­cra­tive fundrais­ing po­ten­tial for their own pur­poses. Sev­eral es­tab­lished na­tional grass-roots ac­tivism and lob­by­ing groups also be­gan leech­ing onto the Tea Party, as well.

Ul­ti­mately, these or­ga­ni­za­tions did more harm than good, cre­at­ing frac­tures within the move­ment, us­ing the Tea Party name to en­gage in pol­icy bat­tles un­re­lated to re­duc­ing the size of govern­ment and squan­der­ing mil­lions of dol­lars that could have been used to elect can­di­dates com­mit­ted to the Tea Party’s orig­i­nal mis­sion.

The Tea Party was then hi­jacked and dis­torted by a num­ber of self-in­ter­ested politi­cians, per­haps most no­tably Sarah Palin, who tried in vain to mar­shal the move­ment’s mo­men­tum to cre­ate a de facto fan club for her­self.

With com­pet­ing na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and ma­raud­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures hop­ing to cap­i­tal­ize on the might of the Tea Party to ad­vance other causes dear to them, Tea Party ac­tivists be­came po­lit­i­cal pawns.

Be­fore long, the Chris­tian Right be­gan to co-opt the Tea Party in or­der to ad­vance its pol­icy ob­jec­tives. In­ject­ing re­li­gion into the Tea Party was like al­low­ing a strip­per to pole dance in the mid­dle of a dog show. Some people loved it. Some people were disgusted by it. It was dis­tract­ing to ev­ery­one and, be­fore long, people lost fo­cus on the main event.

Soon af­ter­wards, the Tea Party move­ment un­rav­eled. In­stead of re­main­ing com­mit­ted to their com­mon am­bi­tion of re­duc­ing govern­ment spend­ing and low­er­ing taxes, the lo­cal groups that formed the core of the move­ment be­gan to dis­perse their en­ergy on a range of un­re­lated topics, rang­ing from pro­tect­ing gun rights and tra­di­tional mar­riage to en­cour­ag­ing bor­der pro­tec­tion and mil­i­tary in­volve­ment in Iran. The move­ment trans­formed from be­ing one thing for all people to be­ing all things for no one.

Rather than unit­ing an overwhelming ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans based on the sin­gle prin­ci­ple of lim­it­ing the power of govern­ment, the Tea Party ul­ti­mately be­gan di­vid­ing Amer­i­cans by some ac­tivists’ em­brace of lu­di­crous con­spir­acy the­o­ries and be­liefs that most Amer­i­cans view as down­right big­oted.

As a re­sult, a move­ment that de­fended prin­ci­ples held by the overwhelming ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans and that ac­cu­rately boasted tens of mil­lions of ac­tivists shrunk in size un­til its ranks could fit com­fort­ably in­side a 1974 Dodge Dart. The re­duc­tion in the size of the Tea Party was noth­ing com­pared to its loss of in­flu­ence.

By the end, the move­ment was so im­po­tent it was pow­er­less to de­feat big-govern­ment Repub­li­cans such as Sen. Mitch McCon­nell of Ken­tucky and Rep. Bill Shus­ter of Penn­syl­va­nia. A sur­prise de­feat of House Ma­jor­ity Leader Eric Can­tor ap­peared to stave of the Tea Party’s death. Mr. Can­tor’s loss, how­ever, turned out to be tied more strongly to vot­ers think­ing he had be­come out-of-touch with his district than any suc­cess of the Tea Party.

The Tea Party breathed its last breath last Tues­day af­ter be­com­ing so weak it could not de­feat widely de­spised six-term in­cum­bent Sen. Thad Cochran, a bigspend­ing Repub­li­can, in a GOP runoff. When it died, the Tea Party had lost its vi­sion, be­come weak­ened by par­a­sites and was plagued with var­i­ous can­cers that sapped its will to fight.

While the Tea Party may be dead, the fight for limited, re­spon­si­ble govern­ment lives on. Af­ter all, the Tea Party didn’t die be­cause Amer­i­cans changed. It was the Tea Party that changed. More Amer­i­cans to­day think that govern­ment is too big, too pow­er­ful and spends too much than in 2009.

It’s for the best for those who loved and sup­ported the Tea Party that it is no more. The splin­tered, un­fo­cused move­ment it had be­come no longer ef­fec­tively served to ad­vance its orig­i­nal goals of re­duc­ing the size and scope of govern­ment. It is now time for an­other move­ment, a truer ef­fort, to lead that im­por­tant strug­gle.

The Tea Party is dead; long live the fight for limited govern­ment.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY M. RY­DER/TRI­BUNE CON­TENT AGENCY

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