Clout Diminished, Tea Party Turns to Narrower Issues
By Tripp Gabriel
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 revenues 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 narrower 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 United Nations 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 legislature in New Hampshire for the loss of a Republican majority in the State House last month and a near loss in the State Senate. 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. An unpopular budget deal could reignite the Tea Party, as the antitax crusader Grover Norquist predicts.
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.
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 Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who became Mitt Romney’s running mate. And some of those lawmakers led the revolt last week that prompted Speaker John A. 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 Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma.
But the Tea Party activists have not been front and center in the fiscal fight. And Mr. Cole added that Tea Party leaders now excoriating Mr. Boehner for offering higher taxes in a budget deal did not recognize political reality.
“These guys want instant success,” said Mr. 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. It may rally purists, but it will continue to alienate realists and centrists, they said.
“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 the president of the Florida Senate. “They will cost Republicans seats in Congress and in state legislatures. But they will also help Republicans win seats.”
Because the Tea Party comprises thousands of local groups, it is impossible to determine whether its ranks shrank after the many electoral defeats last month, which activists said caused grief and deep 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. “If you were in a fight and someone gave you a good left hook, it doesn’t mean the fight is over,” he said.
But Everett Wilkinson, the 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,” with only a third of what there once was.
“A lot of people gave their heart and soul to trying to get Obama out; they’re frustrated,” he added. “They don’t know what to do. They got involved with the electoral process, and that didn’t work out.”
FreedomWorks, a national group that has played a crucial role in organizing Tea Party activists and backing insurgent candidates, has been riven by turmoil, leading to the departure last month of its chairman, Dick Armey, a former Republican majority leader in the House.
Mr. Armey said in news accounts that he questioned the ethical behavior of senior officials in the group, though others told of a power struggle. He was eased out with an $8 million consulting contract, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
FreedomWorks spent nearly $40 million on the 2012 elections but backed a string of losing Senate candidates, including Richard E. Mourdock of Indiana, Josh Mandel of Ohio and Connie Mack of Florida. Some Tea Party firebrands lost their House seats, including Allen B. West of Florida and Joe Walsh of Illinois.
One notable success for the Tea Party was the Senate victory by Ted Cruz of Texas.
Mr. Cummings, who is the Midwest coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, a national group, said a major issue he would be focusing on now was Agenda 21, a United Nations resolution that encourages sustainable development. It has no force of law in the United States, but a passionate element of the Tea Party sees it as a plot against American property rights.
Billie Tucker, an activist with the First Coast Tea Party in Florida, said she and others suspected that corruption on local election boards had led to Mr. Obama’s victory in the state. Activists want to investigate.
“Some people say it’s just a conspiracy theory, but there’s rumbling all around,” she said. “There’s all kinds of data, and no one’s talking about it, including, hello, the mainstream media.”
Another issue boiling is the “nullification” of the Affordable Care Act. Angry that Mr. Obama’s re-election means that the health care law will not be repealed, some activists claim that states can deny the authority of the federal government and refuse to carry it out.
At a Florida State Senate meeting this month, two dozen Tea Party activists called the law “tyrannical” and said the state had the right to nullify it.
Mr. Gaetz, the Senate president, a conservative Republican, said in an interview that he, too, disagreed with the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law. But he called nullification “kooky.”
“We’re not a banana republic,” he said. It is “dangerous to the foundation of the republic when we pick and choose which laws we will obey.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 25, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the loss of Republican seats in the New Hampshire Senate. Republicans in that state lost some seats, but did not lose their hold on the Senate.
Courtesy of NY Times