The emergence of the tea party movement as a force within GOP politics is a storyline worthy of analysis during the run-up to what promises to be a fiercely contested presidential election in 2012.
In 2010, many tea party candidates fought and won competitive races, thereby ensuring GOP control of the House while narrowing Harry Reid's Democratic majority in the Senate. As a result, the last 18 months have witnessed a number of high-stakes budget battles, albeit with mixed success on policy and politics.
On the upside, only a GOP House guaranteed that (at least some) deficit relief would get accomplished on the heels of two major (Bush-era) wars and profligate deficit spending during the Obama years. A Nancy Pelosi-led House would have simply rubber-stamped tax and debt limit increases over the last two years, with no questions asked by a tax-and-spend-happy Congress.
Further, only a Republican House could guarantee no tax increases as part of a budget deal. An Obama-Reid-Pelosi leadership team would have done what comes naturally by including the termination of the Bush tax cuts as an essential element to any budget plan. A new, tea party-influenced majority would have none of this business-as-usual, however. In the words of Ways & Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, any proposed tax increase "is not going to happen." America's primary job creators — small business entrepreneurs — are forever grateful.
Entitlement program cuts (Washington-speak for smaller increases) did not survive the final debt limit agreement of 2011. But newly elected tea party Republicans are more than ready to attack this third rail of modern politics. This determination to (finally) reform heretofore unchecked entitlement spending is not entirely new to Washington; there have been elements within both parties willing to engage in the past. What makes the present situation so historic is the number of members (mostly tea party freshmen) dedicated to doing what everyone knows needs to be done, future sophistic attack ads and fierce establishment criticism notwithstanding.
The way in which the media elite has gone about the business of demonizing the tea party and bemoaning the dysfunction (read: inability to raise taxes) in Washington has been quite a circus. The acrimony with which leading commentators approached the debt limit and other federal budget debates speaks to their deep frustration with those who simply refuse to be co-opted by the time-tested methodologies of the establishment. One notable observation about the newly empowered tea party freshmen: This crowd is not terribly intimidated when labeled "malcontents," "terrorists," "hostage takers," "Nazis," etc. Such willingness to suffer the slings, arrows and demonization campaigns of progressive activists is refreshing and a welcome change in congressional spending culture.
Of course, there are pitfalls attached to any activist campaign. The tea party movement is no exception. One obvious example concerns the NAACP, whose leadership decided early on in the Obama administration that the tea party's agenda was contrary to the interests of its constituency.
In short order, charges of racism against all things tea party were lodged by a number of high-profile Democrats intent on minimizing political damage to the president and his administration. A successful demonization campaign against "tea party Republicans" soon followed. Indeed, I still recall the vitriol directed against the tea party and its sympathizers during my campaign appearances on urban radio in 2010.
Tactical results have been decidedly mixed. In 2010, GOP Senate losses in Delaware, Colorado and Nevada were attributed to conservative tea party primary winners' inability to attract moderate and independent voters in the November general election. Conversely, Scott Walker's strong victory in Tuesday's Wisconsin recall election reflected tea party organizational teeth in a state that has been reliably Democratic in presidential election years.
Regardless, 2012 will see more races wherein tea party favorites challenge moderate, establishment Republicans in expensive primaries but remain potentially vulnerable in general elections.
So, where does the tea party stand at midterm? Well, moving Congress in the general direction of fiscal sanity is certainly a worthy goal. The addition of fiscally conservative newcomers with backbone (from both parties) is sorely needed, particularly in the Senate. But tea party candidates must win general elections against vulnerable big spenders if the movement is to maintain itself as a long-term, viable force within American politics.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding, the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics, and Maryland chairman for the Romney presidential campaign. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.