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Twilight of the Tea Party

February 12, 2013

They emerged from the fear and loathing of the summer of ’09 amidst the noise and waste of the national debate over universal health care. They imagined themselves the inheritors of the mythology of the original Boston Tea Party, throwing the tea into Boston harbor to avoid paying the King’s tax. They took to dressing themselves in faux Revolutionary era costumes like breeches and tri-cornered hats and sported fifes and drums and all manner of 18th century regalia.

And they were mighty pissed. And ill-informed. And in many cases, just old-fashioned stupid. But they were a movement—and a movement that was about to turn right-wing politics in general, and the Republican party in particular, on their collective heads. Unlike the Occupy movement that would arrive two years later, they were focused.

In the 2010 mid-term elections, the Tea Party enabled the Republicans to give the Democrats a genuine drubbing. They took the leadership of the House away from Nancy Pelosi and handed it to John Boehner. More importantly, all House Committee chairs and Committee majorities would now be in the hands of Republicans and with it all the levers of power that reside in the House. Change was in the air and the era of “no compromise” and “screw Obama no matter the cost” was upon us.

But even in those heady days there were signs of trouble. Because the Tea Party had grabbed control of the party machinery, three Senate seats that should have been easily winnable for the Republicans were lost (Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware) because the Tea Party-backed candidates were from the lunatic fringe of the right wing. To be impolite about it—nut cases.

The Congress that resulted from that election was one of the least productive in the Republic’s history. And it earned the lowest approval rating ever recorded (9% at its low point). Nothing of any real importance got done in that Congress, although there was plenty of grandstanding and empty symbolism. Wasting time reading the Constitution from the floor of the House and repealing the Affordable Care Act over 30 times must have felt good, but accomplished nothing. They did manage to harm the economy by misunderstanding that the debt ceiling is not a spending authorization. Did I mention ill-informed and stupid before?

Check.

The 2012 elections should have been a wake up call. Two more states that should have been easy Senate wins (Indiana, Missouri) for the Republicans went to Democrats because of fringe candidates, making a total of five in the last two election cycles. The Republicans managed to retain their House Majority through the magic of gerrymandering, but there were more disturbing storm clouds on the horizon.

The nativist and racist elements, always part of the Tea Party, pushed the Republicans into the netherworld of the right-wing fringe. As they cranked up the volume on illegal immigration (a problem that in large part went away because of the recession) through ill-conceived legislation (Arizona’s “Papers Please” law), Hispanic voters fled the Republican Party in stunning numbers.

The abortion obsessed, now in control of many state legislatures, continued to push through several anti-choice measures that were mortifying to most modern women, exacerbating the gender gap that has been a long standing problem for the Republicans.

Cries of “Drill Baby Drill” fell silent when BP turn the Gulf of Mexico into a toxic wasteland.

Sarah Palin, ever the darling of this crowd, depicted selected certain congressional districts held by Democrats for “targeting” in the mid-terms with a gun sight. One of those Congresswomen was actually shot in the face. Smooth move, Sarah.

As the Tea Party led the Republican party into right wing loony-land, the re-election of Barak Obama was almost assured. This was a vulnerable President, presiding over a smoking hulk of an economy, that was obviously beatable. Just like in the five Senate races previously mentioned, The Tea Party dragged the Republican Party to an astonishing defeat. And since they had constructed for themselves a curious closed-loop information system, relying on UnSkewered Polls and Rasmussen, Fox News and their own out-of-touch talking points, they did not even have the advantage of seeing it coming.

What now? The Republicans are in retreat everywhere (immigration, fiscal governance, gun control). They are in control of a shrinking percentage of an expanding electorate (Hispanics, women, youth) while their own base (rural white men and evangelicals of the old Confederacy) is slipping away. In its current state, the Republican Party is merely a loud, regional party incapable of winning a national election. They can throw sand in the gears, but they cannot drive the car.

The Republic needs an intelligent, thoughtful, and healthy opposition party. I do not want to live in a one party state, even if it’s my party. The Republicans need to purge the extremists from their camp and divorce themselves from the Tea Party or they will have no hope of being intelligent, thoughtful or healthy. We will see what road they take as they try to return to relevance.

I wish them well.

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