The Tea Party: an autopsy

If the Tea Party was to put forward a credible plan to reduce the nation's crippling debt, and support serious conservatives who would advance this agenda when in office, then who knows? The corpse of the Tea Party may one day rise from the dead

Once so hyped, the Tea Party movement is finding life difficult
Dan Whitfield
On 1 March 2012 11:49

How did it come to this? 

Less than two short years after historic midterm elections, during which President Obama received his “shellacking” and Tea Party candidates were elected to Congress in droves, the Republican Party is about to nominate for president one of four candidates, none of whom have succeeded in uniting the Tea Party movement.

Mitt Romney is inauthentic. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have voting records which show they flirted with big government spending.  And Ron Paul alienates as many movement conservatives as he excites.

It gets even worse down ballot. Whereas in 2010, Tea Party stalwarts Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee, and Ron Johnson were elected to the Senate, this year, in wide-open races, the GOP has failed to recruit big name Tea Partiers. Republicans have been reduced to running retreads in some states (Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin, George Allen in Virginia) and running little known candidates in others (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota).

Just a few short years after the Tea Party swept the nation in a fervor rarely seen in politics, is it time to conduct an autopsy and find out why it failed to live up to its early promise?


Because if the Tea Party did die, conservatives must ensure that the principles it stood for – limited government, personal responsibility, and low taxation – do not die along with it.


First let's rule out one cause of death. The Tea Party did not die because of overreach by congressional Republicans. With Democrats maintaining control of the Senate and the White House, conservative legislation was always going to have a hard time crossing the President's desk.  Consequently, Speaker John Boehner's accomplishments have been meager.

He did succeed in halting further federal spending binges, and won a largely symbolic vote on the budget put forward by Paul Ryan. But America's debt crisis demands much more of him. 

The Republican majority therefore did not misread their mandate, as Nancy Pelosi's Democrats did in 2008, passing unpopular legislation which outraged mainstream America.

So what did cause the Tea Party's untimely demise?

One reason is the failure of the Tea Party to seriously address the greatest and most intractable problem in public policy: Americans want lower taxes, but support the four most costly government programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense.

This conundrum explains America's debt crisis. Politicians, fearful of voters' anger, increase spending on these four behemoths and pay for it not through taxation, but rather by piling more debt on our children.

The critics of the Tea Party are right in this sense: the vast majority of Tea Partiers, being seniors, are some of the biggest beneficiaries of government largesse. There is something very unserious about a movement comprised of people using government-funded healthcare and government-run retirement programs complaining about the government.

This was the Tea Party's golden opportunity: to articulate a vision for smaller, better government and acknowledging that these four expensive government programs would have to change as a result.

Instead, they ducked the issue and went after the chickenfeed: federal funding of Planned Parenthood, NPR, and foreign aid. While it's right that the federal government ought to halt all funding of these and other vanity projects, it is peanuts compared to the programs that are truly responsible for our debt: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Defense.

The unserious approach of the Tea Party resulted in the nominating of candidates so far outside the mainstream that they easily went down to defeat: Sharon Angle, Christine O'Donnell, and others. 

That such clowns were nominated in the first place is a reflection of the belief held by many Tea Partiers that the GOP “owed” conservatives. This is correct; conservatives and Tea Party activists make up the bulk of the great army that goes door-to-door, makes phone calls, organizes precincts, and perform the other small but essential tasks that get Republicans elected. Party leadership must heed their concerns.

But the Tea Party is only half right: conservatives owe the GOP too. They owe it to the Republican Party, and the nation, to nominate electable conservatives to office; conservatives who will address the enormity of America's debt crisis. If they fail to do so, Tea Partiers cannot then gripe about moderates winning elections and the lack of progress made on the conservative agenda.

If the Tea Party was to put forward a credible plan to reduce the nation's crippling debt, and support serious conservatives who would advance this agenda when in office, then who knows? The corpse of the Tea Party may one day rise from the dead.

Dan Whitfield is a British copywriter living outside Washington, D.C.  A veteran of over a dozen political campaigns in both the UK and US, Dan now works for one of America’s largest conservative direct mail agencies

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