Four years later, the Tea Party has learned nothing

After a few election cycles, they’re no longer a new entity. Yet, they haven’t grown at all – and that’s by design

Published November 9, 2013 11:30AM (EST)

Tea Party activists rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2013.                    (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Tea Party activists rally in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, June 19, 2013. (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Tea Party is no longer a brand-new movement in American politics. So, more than four years in, what do they appear to have learned? How about: nothing. And they seem to want it that way.

Certainly that appears to be the case with the Tea Party as an electoral force. Oh, Tea Partyers will remind you – they’ve won some. Ted Cruz in Texas, Mike Lee in Utah, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin – all True Conservatives in good standing (at least last I looked; these things can change rapidly), all solid winners in their election bids. It’s hardly the case that nominating a Tea Party candidate is guaranteed to turn a win into a loss.

But three election cycles in, it’s pretty clear that nominating a candidate favored by Tea Partyers over what they consider “establishment” candidates is a formula for risking Republican disaster. And that it’s not going to change any time soon.

So it was for Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle in 2010. So it was with Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock in 2012. And so it’s likely to be with the 2014 crop.

The thing is, four years is plenty of time to develop solid, seasoned candidates. Indeed, once upon a time Marco Rubio was one of those solid, seasoned candidates. Rubio was a successful Florida Republican who had risen rapidly to become speaker of the Florida House; he then adopted the emerging Tea Party and went on to easily win an open U.S. Senate seat. But Rubio’s Tea Party credentials were tarnished because he actually tried to legislate on immigration; while it’s much too early to declare his career in trouble and it wouldn’t be surprising if he still ran a solid race for the Republican presidential nomination, it’s also very easy to imagine him having to fend off a Tea Party primary of his own if he runs for reelection instead of the White House in 2016.

So what do Republicans have for 2014? Matt Bevin, taking on Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, is a first-time candidate; should he win, Republicans would probably lose that seat. In Georgia, Paul Braun in particular is thought by many to be a particularly weak candidate, capable of losing that open seat to Democrat Michelle Nunn if he emerges as the nominee. In Louisiana, Republicans had settled on a solid candidate to challenge Mary Landrieu, but Tea Partyer Rob Maness has jumped in with plenty of serious organizational support.

Granted, this early in the cycle, none of these candidates has (to my knowledge, at least) managed to embarrass himself by orating on rape. Nor have any of them yet revealed themselves as certified non-witches. Indeed, it’s so early that I don’t even know if they have a history of having said crazy things – although I suspect that Mississippi Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel, a former talk radio host, has furnished enough for a fat opposition research file.

Still, it appears to be no more distinguished of a crop than the 2010 and 2012 versions, and I strongly suspect they will begin to generate equally baroque sound bites as soon as the public portion of the campaign season begins. After all, we just had birther Dean Young, who provided plenty of entertainment if you enjoy politicians saying crazy things, come close to knocking off mainstream conservative Bradley Byrne in the Alabama 1 special election.

There’s nothing about being conservative, even extremely conservative, that would necessarily generate bad candidates. But it’s a mistake to interpret Tea Partyism as simply about being more conservative than mainstream Republicans. Instead, in practice, it’s basically turned out to be a cross between radicalism for the sake of radicalism, along with an extreme suspicion of elites. Which in turn has made it rather easy for hucksters and scam artists to convince Tea Party voters and activists that solid conservatives are really squishes and RINOs. There are no issue positions one can cling to that will prevent those charges; accusations of being insufficiently “conservative” in this atmosphere, to these voters, are impossible to refute.

Indeed, as we’ve seen with Ted Cruz, the very reaction to crazy things that Tea Party politicians say really  is the best proof that they are actually True Conservatives.

Which doesn’t mean that Democrats are about to win a Senate seat in Mississippi (although they would be smart to at least get a plausible candidate on the ballot, just in case). But it does mean that we can expect more of the same from Tea Party candidates – perhaps even worse, since by this cycle, perhaps, raving against rape will be too old hat to get condemned by Rachel Maddow, and therefore not sufficient to establish one’s True Conservative credentials.

And therefore, expect Republicans to continue to give away elections they could have won – and to prove incapable of governing in many cases when they do win. The dysfunctional Republican Party isn’t getting better any time soon.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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