Tea Party and the Right  
comments_image Comments

Don't Be Fooled -- Why the Tea Party Is More Powerful Than Ever

The Tea Party has proved itself spectacularly adept at two tasks: exacting promises and submission from presidential candidates and setting the Republican policy agenda.

Go to the panels with the boring names. That’s the secret to any political conference. Flashy names are candy floss meant to tempt you into meetings that at best will tell you what you already know, and at worst will bore you mindless.

That’s the approach I take, anyway, at the 2011 Defending the American Dream Summit, the annual megaconfab put on by Americans for Prosperity. This is the Tea Party group chaired by the billionaire industrialist David Koch with a budget, at last measure, of more than $40 million. Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani are all here to address thousands of Tea Partiers. But the actual  planning is happening in small rooms, under titles like “Property Rights in Peril.” I head inside to find AFP’s petite Oregon director, Karla Kay Edwards, clicking “Play” on a PowerPoint. We see a map of the United States with public lands marked in red.

“Dead capital is property that has no possibility of securing property rights on it,” says Edwards. “Folks, I submit to you that everything in red has no possibility of securing property rights on it.”

A few dozen Tea Party activists take it in, scribble down notes. They’re spending two days in Washington, D.C., on heavily discounted tickets. If they live close by—Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina—odds are that they took a chartered bus here with fellow Tea Partiers. They’re the vanguard of the movement, Republican precinct chairs and campaign volunteers, and they are learning that the 2012 elections won’t count for much unless victory results in a huge sell-off of public lands.

It’s easy to think that the Tea Party is on the wane. Its obituary has been written countless times in the past twelve months. And, in a couple of big, visible ways, it’s true. The large “taxpayer march on Washington” on September 12, 2009, was never matched or repeated. April 15, 2011, the third annual day of tax protests, was mostly a fluke. And the Tea Party’s punching weight in the GOP presidential primary has been hard to measure. Just as conservatives failed to decide on an alternative to John McCain, they have fumbled and staggered from candidate to candidate in a vain attempt to challenge Mitt Romney. In September, Romney appeared at a ballyhooed Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire. I was there. The activists only outnumbered the reporters by around four to one.

But this is the wrong way to look at the Tea Party. After 2010, the movement evolved. Activists got jobs with newly elected Republicans. Political organizations like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks grew their staffs and budgets. Elected Republicans continued to draw on them for strength, support, and warm bodies at campaign events. Think of Florida Governor Rick Scott signing his budget at a Tea Party rally instead of in the Capitol, or of Senator Jim DeMint and other conservatives holding Tea Party events to defend their hell-no stances on raising the debt ceiling.

This new, professionalized Tea Party may not have the numbers to pack the National Mall with tricorne hats, but it has proved itself spectacularly adept at two other tasks: exacting promises and submission from presidential candidates; and setting the Republican policy agenda. And in a representative government, at a time when a languishing economy and anemic voter turnout may turn the odds against Democrats, truly—what else matters?

If, as is quite possible, the Republicans gain control of both the White House and Congress, the Tea Party will have gained a hugely disproportionate amount of control over the government through the use of these two mechanisms. One of them is playing out right now in the garish arena of the primary campaign. The other has been in rehearsals for the past year in the halls of Congress. Here’s a brief description of both.