Remember the Tea Party? Even its members appear to have forgotten themselves. Just three years after it burned through a huge swath of the U.S. political landscape, retaking the House of Representatives for the Republicans in the 2010 off-year elections, the Tea Party seems to be fading as a national political phenomenon.
Need evidence? How about this: the Tea Party caucus in the House hasn't met since last summer and its its webpage is defunct. Moreover, anybody with real GOP influence, from the architect Karl Rove to party head Reince Preibus, has implicitly or explicitly blamed the Tea Party for nominating Senate candidates whose unorthodox views about rape and other sensitive issues led to defeats against vulnerable Democrats in Indiana and Missouri.
But perhaps the Tea Party’s relative public reserve these days is less a sign of the group’s growing irrelevance and more an indication that its attention is demanded elsewhere -- in the middle of an all-out battle for who gets to be the face (and heart) of the Republican Party now and in the foreseeable future.
“[It’s] a civil war within the Republican Party,” said Edward Hudgins, director of advocacy at the libertarian-leaning Atlas Society.
The participants can be broken down into three categories. The first group consists of heavily religious Republicans, in large part evangelical Christians, who care about social issues, from abortion to same-sex marriage: They loathe both, but their numbers are dwindling, and society is moving away from them. Their standard-bearer could be Mike Huckabee, the Baptist preacher, then Arkansas governor, then failed presidential candidate, then Fox News Channel personality.
The second group encompasses establishment conservatives, old-school Republicans with a power base in Washington, who still believe in compromise, but are increasingly pressed by the party's right wing into taking all-or-nothing stances. Think John Boehner, the House majority leader who often looks like he would be ready to cut a deal with President Barack Obama, but can't do it because that would provoke a revolt by a large minority of his caucus -- mostly Tea Party-influenced members elected in 2010.
And the third group is made up of those on the right flank, feisty and vocal: They are limited-government Republicans who want to shrink the federal government and cut public spending to the bone. That's where Tea Party-backed politicians largely reside. They famously don't have a leader, but if one figure spoke for them, it would be Rush Limbaugh, the intransigent, take-no-prisoners radio provocateur who has become the voice of the American right.
So who's winning? Not social conservatives, according to Hudgins. Worrying about what goes on in people’s bedrooms is “guaranteed to lose them elections,” he said.
The youth vote, consisting of those from 18 to 29 years old, is growing and represents about 19 percent of the votes cast in the presidential election last year. Obama was backed by 60 percent of that demographic group, while Mitt Romney was supported by 37 percent, according to a Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement report on Edison Research's National Election Exit Polls.
These young voters have no interest in social conservatism at all. “That’s a major problem in the Republican Party,” Hudgins said, recalling how young Ron Paul supporters were given no credence and shown no respect during the primaries. “This group is going to be a growing proportion of the electorate. The Republican Party is going to be relegated to the dustbin of history” if it doesn't embrace them, he said.
The Establishment Strikes Back
And a disaster of historical dimensions is just what the Republican National Committee is trying to prevent. In the aftermath of the 2012 defeat, the RNC released this month its “Growth & Opportunity Project” report, in which it deduced that the party is outdated.
“At our core, Republicans have comfortably remained the Party of [Ronald] Reagan without figuring out what comes next,” the report read. “Ronald Reagan is a Republican hero and role model who was first elected 33 years ago -- meaning no one under the age of 51 today was old enough to vote for Reagan when he first ran for president. Our party knows how to appeal to older voters, but we have lost our way with younger ones. We sound increasingly out of touch.”
To fix that, the RNC recommends Republicans stop talking to themselves, literally, and become more inclusive of all Americans -- Asians, blacks, Hispanics, gays.
“We have become expert in how to provide ideological reinforcement to like-minded people, but devastatingly we have lost the ability to be persuasive with, or welcoming to, those who do not agree with us on every issue,” the report stated. “Instead of driving around in circles on an ideological cul-de-sac, we need a party whose brand of conservatism invites and inspires new people to visit us. We need to remain America’s conservative alternative to big-government, redistribution-to-extremes liberalism, while building a route into our party that a nontraditional Republican will want to travel. Our standard should not be universal purity; it should be a more welcoming conservatism.”
But while some Tea Party activists understand the need to reach out to more interest groups, many believe that the GOP’s focus should be on more adherence to strict conservative fiscal and economic principles, not less.
“What we’ve seen is that moderates don’t win in the Republican Party,” said Scottie Nell Hughes, news director for the Tea Party News Network, formed less than a week before the 2012 elections. She sounded more belligerent toward Republican leaders than Democrats: “We keep losing, and it’s the fault [of the mainstream of the party]. We know that [the Tea Party] truly has the momentum and just need to know that the [Republican] establishment doesn’t squash us.”
Of course, that position somewhat ignores the 2012 Senate defeats suffered by Tea Party favorites Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, after Akin claimed that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant because their bodies prevent it and Mourdock chimed in that if a woman gets pregnant after being rape, God intended it to happen. But Hughes said that these candidates failed because they were weak candidates who weren’t completely vetted, something she and other Tea Party activists promise to be much more vigilant about.
What Does The Tea Party Care About?
The internal struggle in the Republican Party was evident on the national stage Feb. 12, when the GOP issued its rebuttal to the president's State of the Union address -- in two separate responses. The establishment chose Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to deliver its official address, while Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky offered up the Tea Party Express response. (Both senators are products of the Tea Party wave of 2010 and are also rumored to be 2016 presidential candidates with wildly different visions for America’s future.)
Based on their responses to Obama’s State of the Union address, the only thing the factions fully agree on is America’s fiscal responsibility. On virtually everything else -- the role of the U.S. military, social issues and even to some degree the size of government -- small or large disputes break out. And, according to Hughes, aligning on the issues of building the economy by cutting the deficit and taxes and on ensuring that constitutional rights are strictly protected should be the focus now.
“That will stop the infighting,” Hughes said. “We can talk social issues, and we will never agree. We can agree on rights of the Constitution and that America needs a reality check on the economy.”
Sal Russo, co-founder and chief strategist of the Tea Party Express, a Sacramento, Calif.-based group founded in 2009, wouldn’t quite go that far, however -- and he carries substantial weight. The Tea Party Express accounted for more than 96 percent of all money raised in 2010 by Tea Party-affiliated political action committees, and it has brought in more than $7.6 million since January 2009, according to OpenSecrets.org. The group also spent more than $2.7 million on independent expenditures to back preferred candidates at the federal level. However, only about 25 percent of these expenditures resulted in election victories, according to OpenSecrets.
Russo said he thinks a smooth relationship between the establishment and the Tea Party will always be elusive -- and, indeed, should always be. “There will never be complete alignment,” he said. “When there are candidates strong on economic issues, there will be that merger. We have to be independent. It’s important the Tea Party hold everybody’s feet to the fire to get everything moving again.”
Because of that adherence to ideological purity, Tea Party-backed politicians have been blamed for much of the gridlock on Capitol Hill. Their caucus in the House may be a spent force, but their leverage is still there. House Speaker Boehner was reminded of this last December when he met opposition to his proposed “Plan B” solution to the negotiations with the White House over automatic tax increases and spending cuts. The plan, which would have raised taxes only on those earning more than $1 million -- much higher than what the administration had proposed and that eventually passed -- didn’t even make it to the House floor. Boehner would later reveal there weren’t enough votes to pass it.
Charles H. Franklin, a political-science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in partisanship and voting behavior, said there is some confluence between Tea Party supporters of limited government for ideological reasons and more-traditional budget hawks such as Rep. Paul Ryan, D-Wis., who push for spending cuts primarily as a fiscal philosophy. These two groups of Republications have united to produce a solid majority of GOP members in the House who are willing to block compromise on budgets that their party would have found acceptable 10 years ago, Franklin said.
“In this sense, the deficit hawks and the Tea Party do have a common ground that has had influence over the last few years,” Franklin said. “They’ve been more successful blocking Obama than achieving their own agenda.”
The Perils Of 'No To Everything'
But that may be the Tea Party's biggest problem. It has been extremely successful at denial, but it has a nonexistent record when it comes to constructive policy.
“Some people look at the brand and certainly it has been damaged,” Russo said.
According to a recent CBS News Poll cited by PollingReport.com, support for the Tea Party -- always pretty low in the first place -- dropped to 22 percent this month from 27 percent in February 2011. And a CNN poll found that the group’s favorability rating fell to 28 percent this month from 38 percent in April 2010.
So the plan heading into the 2014 and 2016 election cycles is to “re-establish the good name of the Tea Party,” said the Tea Party News Network’s Hughes. And that means, if anything, more ideological purity, not less.
In practice, the next round of candidates supported by the Tea Party will be thoroughly vetted for legitimate support of the group’s causes: They will be tested on the quality of their answers to questions on the issues, and they will undergo more background checks to ensure they practice what they preach.
And, of course, image is everything. “We’re still the same Tea Party,” Hughes said. “We just have to get rid of the negative connotations we’ve been unfairly branded with.” It may be an uphill battle. “The Republican Party believes the principles of the Tea Party,” Hughes added. “They just don’t want the label.”
These sharp divisions and internal conflicts may not die down soon, said the University of Wisconsin’s Franklin. “I don’t think that gets settled with a report,” he said, referring to the RNC post-mortem.
Even if the Tea Party disappears, it may just morph into the Republican Party itself, Franklin added. “The rise of the Tea Party is no different from how other movements arise,” he said. “The successful parts of the Tea Party, whatever they may be, will be absorbed in the Republican Party. Those parts that are unsuccessful will be extinct. In six to eight years, these sorts of issues will sort themselves out.”
It's hard to predict now which, if any, of the movement's pet issues -- civil libertarianism, strict constitutionalism, a focus on the debt -- will be in the GOP’s mainstream by 2020. But even with a Democrat in the White House and a Republican majority in only one congressional chamber, one thing about the Tea Party is certain, Franklin argued: “Reports of its death are exaggerated.”