Tea Party, clout diminished, now fights for fringe issues

  • Article by: TRIP GABRIEL
  • New York Times
  • December 25, 2012 - 9:18 PM


The Tea Party might not be over, but it is increasingly clear that the election last month significantly weakened the once-surging movement, which nearly captured control of the Republican Party through a potent combination of populism and fury.

Leading congressional Republicans, though they remain far apart from President Obama, have embraced raising tax revenue in budget negotiations, repudiating a central tenet of the Tea Party. Even more telling, Tea Party activists in the middle of the country are skirting the fiscal showdown in Congress and turning to fringe issues, raising questions about whether the movement still represents a citizen groundswell to which attention must be paid.

Grass-roots leaders said this month that after losing any chance of repealing the national health care law, they would press states to "nullify," or ignore, it. They also plan to focus on a two-decade-old U.N. resolution that they call a plot against property rights, and on "fraud" by local election boards that, some believe, let the Democrats steal the November vote.

But unlike the broader, galvanizing issues of health care and the size of the federal government that ignited the Tea Party, the new topics seem likely to bolster critics who portray the movement as a distraction to the Republican Party.

"People in positions of responsibility within the Republican Party tolerated too much of this," said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He blamed a backlash against "tinfoil hat" issues pushed by the Tea Party-dominated state Legislature in New Hampshire for the loss last month of Republican majorities in both chambers. Republican leaders "looked the other way too often," he said. "They sort of smiled, winked and nodded too often when they should have been calling 'Crazy, crazy.'"

The movement is not going away -- most Republicans in the House have more to fear from primary challengers on their right than from Democratic challengers.

But surveys of voters leaving the polls last month showed that support for the Tea Party had dropped precipitously from 2010, when a wave of recession-fueled anger over bailouts, federal spending and the health care overhaul won the Republicans a majority in the House.

'Steel in the spine'

The House members elected with Tea Party backing in 2010 forced onto the national agenda their goals of deep cuts to spending and changes to entitlement programs, embodied by the budget blueprints of Rep. Paul Ryan. And some of those lawmakers led the revolt last week that prompted Speaker John Boehner to cancel a House vote on a plan to avert a year-end fiscal crisis by raising tax rates on household income above $1 million.

"The Tea Party put a lot of steel in the spine of the Republican Party," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma.

But Tea Party activists have not been front-and-center in the fiscal fight. And Cole added that Tea Party leaders now excoriating Boehner for offering higher taxes in a budget deal did not recognize political reality.

"These guys want instant success," said Cole, a member of the House Republican leadership. "If they want to see a better result, they've got to help us win the United States Senate. We've thrown away some seats out of political immaturity."

But a number of Republican leaders said the Tea Party seemed headed toward becoming just another political faction, not a broad movement.

"I think the Tea Party movement is to the Republicans in 2013 what the McGovernites were to the Democrats in 1971 and 1972," said Don Gaetz, a Republican who is president of the Florida Senate.

Because the Tea Party comprises thousands of local groups, it is impossible to determine whether its ranks shrank after the electoral defeats last month, which activists said caused grief and frustration.

Greg Cummings, the leader of the We the People Tea Party in rural Decatur County, Iowa, said his group had picked up 12 members since the election, for a total of about 50.

But Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the Florida Tea Party in Palm Beach County, said the number of active Tea Party groups statewide "has diminished significantly in the last year or so, certainly in the last couple of months."

© 2018 Star Tribune