Question of the month: Is the party over?
The tea party, that is.
It began in 2009 as a spontaneous movement with no formal organization, national leader or central source of funding. It spread its anti-government message to receptive recruits through Internet posts and email links. In the beginning, it was nothing more than a series of protest rallies, uncoordinated with each other and staged for no purpose other than to express outrage. After someone named it after the Boston tea party of Revolutionary times, it continued to grow, in part because the media became fascinated with it.
MSNBC bemoaned its existence, but Fox News gave Glenn Beck an afternoon TV slot in which he broadened and pushed its agenda — his ratings soared. The network also gave Sarah Palin a contract after she resigned as governor of Alaska and got the same result. The tea party was hot copy.
Thus stimulated, rallies got bigger, better organized and more frequent. National figures scrambled to get in. Former Rep. Dick Armey R-Texas, the head of a conservative political group called FreedomWorks, proclaimed himself head of the movement. Sen. Jim DeMint R-S.C., organized a PAC to channel money to underfunded tea party Senate candidates. As a number of those candidates won upset victories in Republican primaries, observers recognized that this was one of the most rapidly spreading and effective political brush fires in American history. Tea partiers looked to the 2010 election with great expectations.
The results were bittersweet.
In House races, enough tea party candidates won to shift control to the Republicans, ousting Nancy Pelosi as Speaker and putting themselves in position to strongly influence, if not dictate, the Republican majority agenda. In Senate races, however, the results were not so good. Tea party nominees in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware bungled three clear opportunities for Republican pickups in those states. As a write-in candidate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski successfully defeated the tea party candidate who had beaten her in the primary. Tea party leaders promised to do better in 2012.
They didn't. In the House, the number of tea party winners shrank rather than grew. In the Senate, bad tea party candidates delivered easy wins to otherwise vulnerable Democrats in Missouri and Indiana, states which Mitt Romney carried. Identification with the tea party had become a political liability in any race which was closely contested.
Fox News had canceled Glenn Beck's show before the election because he could no longer attract sponsors. Now, after it, they have not renewed Sarah Palin's contract. Instead of growth, there is disintegration.
FreedomWorks had a disastrous 2012; for example, the viciousness of their attacks on Orrin Hatch made people mad at them, not him. Dick Armey left the group amid reports of infighting and complete disarray among its staff. Jim DeMint has moved from the Senate to the Heritage Foundation. (He insists that he will push tea party views in his new position, and Democrats hope that is true. One told me, "DeMint has been our greatest asset. He's given us at least six Senate seats — maybe more.")
Brush fires burn themselves out when the fuel is gone, and fuel for a political movement is victory. Electoral defeats for tea party candidates have created momentum in the opposite direction. If no national figures emerge to replace those who have departed — and there are no media stars or aspiring politicians on the horizon who appear to be willing to bet their careers on doing so — then the party truly will be over in a few years.
Nothing in politics goes on forever.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.