At the beginning of this year the Congressional Tea Party Caucus was a shell of its former self. And by shell I mean just an inactive website and Twitter account. Michelle Bachmann’s much acclaimed Tea Party Caucus had no one in attendance
Up until this week, it hadn’t been a good two years for the Tea Party. Since their 2010 high water mark, the Tea Party has lost momentum. In the most recent election they got stuck with the most un-Tea Party candidate out there, Mitt Romney; their Senate candidates got trounced; and Democrats started to claim back seats both in Congress and the state level. But perhaps the most decisive blow was the re-election of President Barack Obama, the individual who inspired the rise of the Tea Party movement in the first place.
Outside of Texas and South Carolina it looked like the Tea Party was on its deathbed.
Today, the Tea Party has a new lease on life. The issue trifecta of Benghazi, the IRS audits, and the AP investigations has resuscitated the near moribund Tea Party. While each of these issues deals with different agencies and actors they share the common denominator of heightening distrust in the government.
Intrusion on personal finances: check. Intrusion on free speech: check. Lack of foreign policy transparency: check. Regardless of what is uncovered, the perception of an overbearing government has been checked off. These scandals validate what the extreme fringe of the Republican Party has been saying. The administration has given the Tea Party an “I told you so” moment.
But just as important as the Tea Party having issues that reinforce its claims of government intrusion is the fact that there are eager and willing political entrepreneurs ready to lead the charge. The Palins and Bachmanns are so 2010. Even former Senator DeMint is old Tea Party news.
The fresh young faces of the Tea Party are that of Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Over the past several months they had appeared to be political gadflies. Even fellow Republican Senators such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham made their annoyance at these young Tea Partiers known. But today, Cruz and Paul are positioned exactly where they want to be–at the head of the charge against a scandal-weakened administration. And most importantly, both Cruz and Paul have burning presidential aspirations that will drive them to generate as large and broad a Tea Party 2.0 movement as possible.
From the Tea Party’s perspective the timing couldn’t be better. Although we are more than a year away from the mid-term election, we are on the heels of primary season. As we head into the summer, the Tea Party will be able to start beating the government conspiracy drum and re-energize Tea Party rank and file members and recruit potential candidates. The fact that the 2010 redistricting drew extremely homogenous Republican districts will only facilitate the Tea Party’s 2014 effort.
The medium-term danger for Democrats is electoral. The new Tea Party is poised to make inroads into purple America. Deep red states will remain red and deep blue states blue. But those states in between are those most likely to cede ground to the Tea Party. Although by November of 2014 Benghazi, the IRS, and the AP will be out of the headlines, they will be front and center in the campaign ad wars and stump speeches.
The short-term danger for Democrats rests in the survival of immigration reform and a renewed attempt at gun control. If an anemic Tea Party was able to fend off background checks, just think what an emboldened Tea Party will be able to do. The core of the ideological opposition to gun control has always been rooted in a distrust of the government, which this week was served to them on a silver platter.
On immigration, it seemed that except for the Tea Party outliers of Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Peter King, this was an issue both Republicans and Democrats could get behind. That bipartisan good feeling is rapidly draining into Tea Party-based calls to oppose “amnesty” and the immigration reform that calls for it. In the wake of the administration’s perceived foreign policy bungles–Benghazi and the Boston bombings—the Tea Party can better make the case to remain insulated.
The Republican far right has a new lease on life. The offensive strategy is already starting to peek through. The administration’s lack of transparency and perceived spin has only boosted the Tea Party.
But the true test of the Tea Party’s endurance rests with the Democrats. In 2010 Democrats did not take the Tea Party movement seriously. As a result, the Democrat defense was small and uncoordinated against the 2010 offensive surge. The events of the past week will surely provide the Tea Party new momentum but just how far that momentum goes will depend on the Democrats.