Where does the Tea Party movement go from here?


By most accounts, this month’s 16-day shutdown of the federal government was a political disaster for the Republican Party. And perhaps the greatest wound suffered by the GOP in this matter is the decline in public favor for the Tea Party movement, which is widely seen as the tail that wags the Republican dog.

John Judis of the New Republic SPECULATES HERE on the future of the Tea Party in the wake of the shutdown debacle:

[T]he Tea Party’s failure to wring concessions from the Obama administration—and the palpable damage it [the shutdown] inflicted on the Republican Party—may even presage the end of this political bloc. By 2016, the Tea Party may have gone the way of the religious right of the 1990s or the anti-immigrant Minutemen of the 2000s. And yet the question remains whether the Tea Party’s demise will produce a kinder, gentler, more cooperative America—or whether its constituents will regroup and again threaten a descent into political and social disorder.

Over the last century, protest groups in the United States have rarely taken the form of new national parties, and the Tea Party is no exception. It is a political movement of local groups and competing national organizations. The Tea Partiers’ political ends are reactionary—they want to undo the liberal reforms of the last 80 years—but their means are radical. They envision a doomed country that can only be saved through convulsion, not compromise…

The Tea Partiers are a species of what Donald Warren—in his 1976 book, “The Radical Center” — called “middle American radicals.” They tend to be white, middle class, primarily from the South and Southwest (including Southern California) and parts of the Midwest. Many work in or own small businesses that they perceive to be under siege by regulations or taxes or unions or cheap immigrant labor. Others are professionals who see no use for government. Earlier, they might have belonged to the John Birch Society or voted for George Wallace or Pat Buchanan; they might have joined anti-tax groups, the Minutemen, or religious-right organizations. Many still hold these views—anti-immigrant and conservative Christian sentiments proliferate on Tea Party websites—but the animating cause has changed.

The Tea Partiers gravitated toward the GOP because of its opposition to energetic government, and because it contains politicians like Michele Bachmann and Steve King who championed their cause. But they did not identify with the party leadership, which they saw as just another part of Washington to be opposed and, eventually, overthrown. From Tea Party directories, I would estimate that the people who actively participate in Tea Party groups number no more than 75,000—considerably less than 1 percent of likely Republican voters. And yet over the past three years, these activists have increasingly set the agenda of the Republican Party. That’s partly because, at its height, the Tea Party was viewed favorably by as much as 64 percent of GOP voters, who saw it as leading the fight against the debt, the deficit, the ACA, and everything else they disliked about Obama’s Washington.


But the Tea Party had won popular support for its anger against Washington, not for its radical methods. It was one thing to oppose the ACA; quite another to put the U.S. dollar and next month’s Social Security check in jeopardy. When the Tea Party’s extremism was exposed, its popularity began to crumble. In February 2010, according to a Pew Poll, 33 percent of the public had a favorable view of the Tea Party and 25 percent held an unfavorable view (the rest had no opinion). By this October, the unfavorables outnumbered the favorables by 49 to 30 percent, and 30 percent had a “very unfavorable” opinion of the movement. Among Republicans, the unfavorables rose from 10 percent to 27 percent. These numbers are only likely to grow as the public learns more about what happened during the crisis.

Similarly, the Republican Party has sustained major damage. Seventy-four percent of respondents in an October ABC News/Washington Post poll said they disapproved of the party’s handling of budget negotiations. The shutdown may cost the Republicans the Virginia statehouse: Even though the Republican candidate, Ken Cuccinelli, took no position on the strategy, he went fromabout 5 points down in mid-September to 10 a month later. In next year’s midterm elections, Democratic challengers will be able to tie Republican incumbents in northern and western swing districts to the debacle. Another dramatic shutdown attempt this winter—combined, perhaps, with an attempt to unseat Boehner—could even cost the Republicans the House in 2014.

Almost overnight, the Tea Party has become toxic. Where Republicans were once afraid of crossing the movement, they are now fearful of being identified with it.


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