(2 of 2)
That's only the beginning. next spring, Congress will have to decide whether to raise the federal debt ceiling. Increasing it would gall a lot of Tea Party voters, but the alternative would likely involve a government shutdown like the one that proved disastrous for Republicans in 1995. Will GOP leaders find a way to keep government going without alienating Tea Party factions? Can Tea Party deficit hawks avoid a collision with Tea Party tax cutters? Can the rock-ribbed Republicans who have joined the Tea Party movement keep peace with the pox-on-both-parties purists? Or will the most orthodox elements move in anger toward a third-party candidate? (How many times can Michael Bloomberg say no?)
It's possible that the presidential contest will produce one and only one Tea Party standard bearer, who will, in turn, lead the movement past these and other philosophical divisions. A growing number of veteran Republican leaders are trembling at the possibility that Sarah Palin might be that one. Doubting her ability to win the White House, they hope Palin will decide to endorse another candidate rather than run herself. But with a wide-open field beckoning ambitious Republicans of all stripes, it is hard to imagine that Palin or any other candidate could clear the course of all competitors.
Far more likely is a long, closely fought race, which means sharply targeted efforts by skilled, well-funded candidates to split the GOP into blocs and win voters one faction at a time. Today's cracks in the Tea Party facade will be probed and wedged open. Traditional conservative divisions libertarians, Evangelicals, corporate interests, Joe Lunch Bucket that were masked while everyone banded together against Obama could return. Only now, every faction will be able to stake a claim to the Tea Party mantle, having served the movement in the Great Midterm War.
And keep this in mind: Tea Party energy was a key ingredient in the Republican landslide of 2010 but that doesn't mean the GOP establishment is rooting for the movement's continued success. Folks waving flags marked "Don't tread on me" tend not to be team players. Tea Partybacked candidates knocked off veteran Republicans in primaries in every part of the country, from Alaska to Florida, Delaware to Nevada. This purge mentality left the GOP with some pretty kooky candidates in high-profile races and probably cost conservatives an even broader victory.
Elephants have long memories. The hard feelings created during these Tea Party insurgencies will further complicate efforts to hold the movement together as part of a happy and efficient Republican coalition. No doubt the establishment will gingerly embrace Tea Partyers for a while. But one day, the hands that slap those backs may hold stilettos.
The Tea Party is a hot brand, but there's no one in power to enforce the trademark. Now that the bailouts are history and Democratic hegemony is broken, what does it stand for? It's a sign of the incredible velocity of politics these days that the colossus of 2010, a movement not even two years old, is already facing an identity crisis.
Next Hamid Karzai