In seeking both a powerful advocate or a strong candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, the Tea Partiers are likely to get neither.
Elections channel and dilute social movements. This was James Madison’s design, and it works pretty much as he expected. It fragments and filters social movements, and produces a great deal of frustration.
The Tea Party’s strong influence in the Republican Party has paradoxically produced an extremely weak and damaged field of contenders. Tea Party enthusiasm and money encouraged a few very weak candidates (including Herman Cain and Rep. Michele Bachmann), and crowded out a few potentially strong ones. And all of the hopefuls, with the partial exception of Jon Huntsman, were eager to pander to some version of the Tea Party to make progress in the primaries.
Of course, it’s hard to tie the Tea Party to a specific set of policy demands or issues. Activists initially united on opposition to President Obama’s health care reforms. Although there was shared language on the Constitution, limited government, deficits, and taxation, Tea Party groups differed greatly on how to pursue these goals and on their priorities. In the early part of the Tea Party, there was a general agreement to put social issues, specifically abortion and same sex marriage, on the back burner.
In pursuit of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, all of the candidates have brought those issues to the fore, and have fought to distinguish themselves by the vigor and authenticity of their commitment to those social issues.
And now, the most charitable interpretation is that Tea Party still has three candidates who appeal to its agenda, but partly and poorly.
Rep. Ron Paul, who has espoused a vision of limited government for decades, plausibly stands for the libertarian stream in the Tea Party, with a notable exception for his opposition to abortion. But Rep. Paul has also alienated the party establishment, which ignores him when possible, offering occasional denigration of his vision of a very restrictive vision of foreign and military policy.
Former Senator Rick Santorum has a history as a social conservative, in Congress and since, and has championed the issues Tea Partiers initially decided were too divisive to organize around. On fiscal matters, he politicked just like a regular Republican.
Finally, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose record offers little consistency on any set of issues, has effectively channeled a Tea Party attitude: anger and entitlement. Thus far, he has been able to win support by railing against the media and Washington elites, while deflecting attention from his past, political or personal, or coherent positions on issues. This might be able to carry him a long way, but the obvious reluctance of mainstream Republicans to have Speaker Gingrich top their ticket makes it unlikely.
So, Tea Party efforts are likely to help former Governor Mitt Romney, not a real Tea Partier on any dimension, emerge as the the Republican nominee.
It’s an American story.