Tea Partiers are frustrated about the Republican defeat in the 2012 election, and angry at politicians and pundits who blame them. All their energy, effort, and anger produced contentious campaigns, but also the reelection of President Obama and Democratic gains almost everywhere. It may be even worse.
Tea Partiers themselves divided over the need to pick true champions of their positions (e.g., Tea Party Patriots) or strong candidates (e.g., Tea Party Express). But there wasn’t much agreement on how someone would demonstrate either fealty to a movement that included many divisions or even viability in the general election.
Confusion about the issues was everywhere, but mostly glossed over in mainstream media reports. The Tea Party had emerged in 2009 in response to the federal bailout of the financial system, the economic stimulus bill, and President Obama’s health care reform. The money for the first two programs was already spent (and the financial sector bailout money mostly recovered) long before this campaign, so it wasn’t clear what was to be done, save not to do it again. And all of the Republicans were united in opposition to “Obamacare,” promising to repeal it.
Beyond that, Tea Partiers seemed to agree on limited government, limited debt, and limited taxation, in general, and Constitutional principles–although they differed on what that might mean. All of this still seems fairly vague, and all of the Republican candidates could support these positions–at least abstractly. The early emergence of the Tea Party explicitly avoided divisive social issues (read: abortion and same sex marriage) and military and foreign policy. National Tea Party groups (with the notable exception of the relatively small Tea Party Nation) put immigration on the back burner, with some of the core groups interested in promoting a guest worker program.
Rep. Ron Paul carried a mostly limited government vision of the Tea Party into the Republican primaries (save on abortion), but he was alone. The Tea Party’s demands were redefined, by the national Republican Party, the candidates themselves, and mass media, as a resurrection of the old economic conservative/social conservative alliance, bizarrely tied to an aggressive and expensive foreign military policy and including a nasty nativist element.
A government that uses drones to assassinate enemies abroad (including American citizens), increases surveillance on American citizens, and spends 4 percent of the Gross Domestic Product on the military is NOT a limited government. Rep. Paul said this over and over again, but he didn’t win any primaries, and Governor Romney kept him from a favored speaking slot at the convention–because Paul would say the same things again. (This isn’t a tough prediction; Ron Paul has been saying these things for thirty years.)
So the Republican Party had Tea Party energy and anger, but draped them over an old–and eroding–political coalition. All of the self-described Tea Party Republican candidates (except Rep. Paul) supported low taxes, low debt, and low spending, but none was willing to articulate the massive cuts that would actually add up to a government that could be funded with very low taxes. And all of them supported harsh restrictions on immigration, opposed same sex marriage and abortion, and vigorously rejected cooperation with elected officials who might disagree with them (read: Democrats and less committed Republicans).
So, after the election, Tea Partiers got neither office-holders nor a clear articulation of their views. The electoral defeat has put divisions within the movement in high relief. Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer called for an end to recriminations within the Republican Party, and a cease fire of the “circular firing squad,” noting that the Tea Party and the Republican Party needed to address their electoral weaknesses with gays and ethnic minorities:
The people of this country sent a clear message to our elected officials that we want a government that works to protect the interests of working-class citizens of every race, gender and sexual orientation.
But Kremer’s position wasn’t widely shared within the Tea Party. Tea Party Patriots
leader Jenny Beth Martin announced that the movement had to be stronger in dealing with a Republican Party that sold them out. In a statement posted on their website, the Tea Party Patriots announced:
Today, Tea Party Patriots, the nation’s largest tea party organization, criticized the Republican Party for hand-picking a weak, Beltway elite candidate who failed to campaign forcefully on America’s founding principles – and lost.
“For those of us who believe that America, as founded, is the greatest country in the history of the world – a ‘Shining city upon a hill’ – we wanted someone who would fight for us,” Jenny Beth Martin, National Coordinator of Tea Party Patriots. “We wanted a fighter like Ronald Reagan who boldly championed America’s founding principles, who inspired millions of independents and ‘Reagan Democrats’ to join us, and who fought his leftist opponents…
“What we got was a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party. The Presidential loss is unequivocally on them.
“With the catastrophic loss of the Republican elite’s hand-picked candidate – the tea party is the last best hope America has to restore America’s founding principles.
Tea Partiers are no doubt prepared to carry on the struggle for America and against President Obama and the Democratic Party. For a while, however, they’ll be heavily engaged in a struggle against each other. The Tea Party name is likely to survive, but it’s far from clear who will own it, much less just what issues it will advance.