Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

The Tea Party

The surprising thing about the Tea Party movement is how many experts were surprised by it. The U.S. has always been home to a large group of people who think the government is too big and spends too much. Why wouldn't those people rise up when the already gargantuan federal deficit more than tripled seemingly overnight? Some lexicographers say refudiate was the word of the year, but for sheer political impact, it's hard to top the word trillion.

America has always had its populists too, people leery of the predations of Wall Street and its Washington handmaidens. And here was Washington, right on cue, bailing out the fat cats who helped blow up the economy. It might be true that a crisis brought on by excessive borrowing by homeowners and investment bankers should be solved with yet more borrowing by the government (although even Ph.D.s in economics can't agree on that). But you can be certain that some folks will conclude that somewhere in that vast daisy chain of debt, somebody is going to have to pay — and get angry when they realize that somebody is likely to be them.

The eye-catching aspects of the Tea Party movement were the folks with tricornered hats and the occasional offensive hand-painted sign and the wave-riding hucksters in various guises, from bumper-sticker salesmen to patriotic songwriters looking for fame to the Tea Party's weepy master of ceremonies, Glenn Beck. Such spectacles were mostly foam, frothing on the surface. Down deep, forces like populism, libertarianism and skepticism of government — throw in some cultural conservatism and a dash of antielitism (and, according to Tea Party critics, some measure of residual racism) — created the swell that swept over American politics in 2010, inundating congressional Democrats while battering the Republican establishment.

Despite the age-old currents, though, Tea Partyism is in certain respects a purely contemporary wave. It spread like wildfire, upending dozens of elections, yet has not coalesced around a single leader, a single agenda or even a common name. The Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights has produced a detailed history of Tea Party organizations from large to tiny, viewable at Included is a map covered with a blizzard of dots, each representing a group or chapter or website or even just a couple of people. This dizzying multitude is arrayed around at least six different banners: Tea Party Nation, Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, ResistNet, the 1776 Tea Party. Leveraging the same tools that helped elect President Obama — Facebook, Meetup, blogs, YouTube — the Tea Party opposition to Obama's policies grew huge without ever growing organized.

In a sense, identifying with the Tea Party movement was like catching Beatlemania in the 1960s. People were drawn in for different reasons — the beat, the haircuts, the lyrics — and great gulfs of taste divided the John fans from the Paul fans, the George fans from the Ringo fans.

Smashing success broke the Beatles apart. As 2010 closes, there is no bigger question in U.S. politics than whether the Tea Party will go the same way. The pressures on this already divided movement will be enormous. As long as the far-flung elements of the Tea Party were shoulder to shoulder against Obama, it was easy to keep them together. But now, the party that argued so effectively for smaller government is headed to Washington, where so many other waves have broken and receded. Having remade Congress and with a GOP presidential nomination up for grabs, the Tea Party is about to learn that rallying against its enemies is easier than choosing among its allies.

The Tea Party victories didn't magically heal the age-old divisions of the right. Senator-elect Rand Paul, the movement's flag bearer in Kentucky, is the son of libertarian icon Representative Ron Paul of Texas. Dad has often split with the neocons of the Republican Party over military interventions around the world. Like father, like son? For that matter, how will the hands-off libertarians get along with the factions of the GOP that want to enforce drug laws and ban abortion and same-sex marriage? Already the self-proclaimed Tea Party Caucus of the House of Representatives is clashing with GOP leaders over how to pursue repeal of the Obama health care law. Should the new Congress propose an alternative medical system or take a harder line: Just keep the government out?

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 Party–backed 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.