The fifth anniversary of the Tea Party gives us an opportunity to look back not only at the many myths surrounding the movement, but also at what it has to show for its five years of political nihilism:
1) Government Shutdown
Many Tea Party activists seemed to be under the delusion that the GOP was pummeled in the 2012 election because Republican candidates weren’t conservative enough, and that voters really want more of their brand of uncompromising, ultraconservative, ideological politics. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz gave them just that when he convinced Republican congressional leaders to go along with him in forcing a government shutdown over the health care reform law.
The GOP and the Tea Party suffered a massive backlash from the public, but Cruz fixed things by “unskewing” the polls and insisting that the GOP was actually winning the shutdown battle.
Of course, Republicans ended up getting nothing out of the shutdown, and Cruz is now desperately trying to claim that it was actually Obama and Senate Democrats who were responsible for it.
2) Debt Limit Fights
With Tea Party-aligned members of Congress acting like “lemmings with suicide vests,” Tea Party politicians and organizations have repeatedly pressured GOP leaders to engage in hostage-taking over the federal debt limit, warning that they may refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless President Obama agrees to their demands — even if that means throwing the economy into crisis. One problem is that many Tea Party leaders don’t understand how the debt limit works, or the dangerous consequences of their political strategy.
While GOP leaders have vowed not to follow the insane policy anymore, the Tea Party still has two debt limit crises to “celebrate,” and a third if they get their way.
3) Candidate Drama
Tea Party-backed candidates such as Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell and Richard Mourdock are best known for their spectacular ability to lose winnable races, not to mention their high entertainment value. But we shouldn’t be surprised that Tea Party activists are drawn to such candidates, as many take after more successful Tea Party leaders like Cruz and Michele Bachmann.
Just in case you thought Republicans had learned their lesson about fringy Tea Party candidates, Glenn Beck spent last year trying to encourage extremist figures including Rep. Louie Gohmert and pseudo-historian David Barton to take on incumbent Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in this year’s Republican primary. Ultimately, the equally far-right congressman Steve Stockman got in the race.
4) GOP Takeover
Despite much talk about “establishment” Republicans fighting back against Tea Party insurgents, very few Tea Party congressmen are facing primary challengers. After the 2013 shutdown and debt fights, business groups like the Chamber of Commerce announced that they would take on the Tea Party…but they made the same threat after the 2011 debt limit crisis, and ended up funding Tea Party-aligned Republicans anyway.
“Despite making statements and sending letters voicing their concern, the Chamber has failed to spend a single penny in advocacy against the Tea Party hostage-takers,” Lee Fang notes. “[A]fter helping the Tea Party seize the House and several governors’ mansions during the midterms, business groups pumped funds into an effort to gerrymander the Tea Party into permanent rule.”
Hardline activists have also taken over groups such as Heritage Foundation and empowered new organizations such as FreedomWorks, Senate Conservatives Fund and The Madison Project, who are now backing Tea Party challengers in GOP Senate primaries states like Kentucky, Kansas and Mississippi.
While there is a lot of fuss about fired aides and ad firms as signs of the GOP civil war, in the end Republicans have embraced most of the Tea Party’s agenda — if not their tactics — and the many Tea Party congressmen from deep red districts seem to be here to stay.
5) Obama’s Second Term
While the Tea Party is far from the only factor that helped President Obama win re-election, the Tea Party — along with their close allies in the Religious Right, talk radio and Fox News — moved the GOP and its leaders towards unpopular and extreme positions on issues ranging from immigration to Medicare.
The Tea Party “makers-and-takers” worldview was most infamously stated by Mitt Romney in his notorious remarks about the “47 percent,” a line that conservative activists actually loved.
A CNN poll [PDF] taken a month after the 2012 election found that a 53 percent of Americans believe the Republican party is “too extreme,” a seventeen-point increase from 2010.
Completely divorced from reality, few Tea Party supporters predicted that Romney would lose: Two months before the election, a whopping 84 percent of Tea Party members believed that “pollsters [were] intentionally skewing their polls to help Barack Obama.”