Since the Tea Party arose in 2009, it has achieved two major goals, but failed to fulfill its third and most important task.
It stopped–or slowed, technically–the spending spree in Washington, keeping deficits in check and blocking further bailouts. It knocked out members of the Republican establishment who had drifted to the left or had simply lost touch with their constituents.
But the Tea Party has yet to supply the nation with effective leaders of its own.
As I wrote a year ago in my e-book, Wacko Birds: The Fall (and Rise) of the Tea Party:
…the basic failure of the Tea Party comes down to failing to develop leadership and public representatives who could make the case for the movement’s principles. The movement remained largely a reactive one, captive to the whims of the very politicians in Washington against whom it had risen up, and who—in the case of the GOP—only held power because the Tea Party had enabled them to take it. And while the openness of the movement was undoubtedly a strength, it also allowed opportunists and unqualified candidates to sully the brand with self-serving errors and short-sighted tactics. The new opposition suffered from the abdication of several key figures—from politicians who used the Tea Party to get elected and then turned on the movement, to media figures who led conservatives to the political battle only to turn away and focus on their own interests.
One of the main Tea Party organizers once remarked that he did not see a life for the movement after 2014. He assumed that the GOP would win the presidency in 2012, and that 2014 would solidify that president’s majority–and that once the leftist surge of 2006-8 had been finally beaten back, the movement could sink back into obscurity.
The GOP did not win the presidency, and though it won the Senate, it has little to show for it. While The Tea Party rebuilt the political opposition, and paved the way for a conservative renaissance at the state level, it remained profoundly ambivalent about governing. It feared co-optation by the establishment–yet by standing apart from the establishment, it lost control of the agenda.
That may be changing.
Last month, the Tea Party helped push out Speaker of the House John Boehner–a congenial deal-broker whose skills and style were ill-suited to a president with radical goals, excessive self-regard, and little tolerance for domestic opposition. This week, the Tea Party scored another unexpected victory as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy withdrew suddenly from a Speaker’s race he seemed likely to win. The field is now wide open.
Conservatives have two candidates in the running. One is Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, who mounted an ill-fated challenge to Boehner earlier this year, and who this week won the endorsement of the House Freedom Caucus, a new vehicle for the Republican Party’s conservative wing. The other candidate is Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who was “Tea Party” before the Tea Party, but who has been perceived as closer to the establishment in recent days.
It is not clear that either has a majority. Paul Ryan–who lost some, but only some, conservative support by adopting a more conciliatory posture after 2012–may soon be convinced to run. The caucus could also choose a candidate from outside the chamber–perhaps former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), a reformer’s reformer.
What is needed, at any rate, is a candidate who can unite the caucus behind a strategy to oppose Obama, while at the same time overcoming public skepticism–voiced Thursday even by Fox News–towards the idea that anyone who wins Republican support might actually try to govern.
The race for Speaker will now be postponed, as are the races for House Majority Leader and Majority Whip. House conservatives have a brief window to prepare a slate to replace the House leadership and reinvigorate Congress as a whole.
This could be the Tea Party’s last chance to fulfill its early potential. There may not be another.