The Tea Party Lives
The Tea Party may permanently change the character of the Republican party.


Michael Barone

February marked the fifth anniversary of the reemergence of the label “Tea Party” in American politics. It was in February 2009 that Rick Santelli delivered his famous rant on CNBC, and a few days later, a group calling itself the Tea Party Patriots was organized.

Today the conventional wisdom is that the tea-party movement is exhausted. Polls are cited showing that only one-quarter of Americans express approval of the Tea Party. Democrats run ads claiming their opponents are tea-party radicals.


Many Republicans argue that tea-party candidates have lost winnable Senate races, cementing the Democratic majority there rather than overturning it.

There is something to these lines of attack, but it misses a larger picture.

I have likened the contemporary tea-party movement to the peace movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Both began as critics of the more like-minded party: Peaceniks excoriated Lyndon Johnson; the Tea Party decried George W. Bush. Both targeted politicians of both parties.

But both groups soon became mono-partisan, working within one major party. The peace groups secured the Democratic presidential nomination for George McGovern in 1972 and, more successfully, generated support for the young liberals who swept to control in the congressional elections of 1974.

The peace movement permanently changed the character of the Democratic party. For half a century, starting in 1917, Democrats were the party more inclined to support military interventions. In the almost half-century since then, Democrats have been consistently the more dovish party.

The tea-party movement has had a similar effect on the Republican party so far. We shall see if it proves as permanent.

Like the peace movement, the tea-party movement brought hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people into political activity, people with strong convictions, not on peripheral, but on fundamental issues of public policy. The peace movement supplied energy and enthusiasm plainly lacking in the Democratic party in 1969 and the Tea Party did the same for the Republican party in 2009.

Such surges into politics will bring in many wackos, weirdos, and wannabes. But they also include many solid citizens and some with finely honed political instincts.

Both movements supported primary challengers against contrary-minded incumbents or favorites of party insiders. Some of those challengers — most notably Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware — then lost winnable general-election races.

But the tea-party movement also supported some politically gifted challengers — some with considerable political experience (Marco Rubio in Florida, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania), some with none at all (Ron Johnson in Wisconsin), and some with insider connections among conservatives (Mike Lee in Utah, Ted Cruz in Texas).

On policy, the tea-party movement has had a significant impact as well. It contributed to Republican unanimity against Obamacare and against tax-rate increases.

President Obama predicted that his reelection would “break this fever” of Republican opposition to his policies. Republicans would acquiesce in what Obama seems to regard as commonsense expansions of government.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, policy has moved in the other direction. Republicans were willing to accept the sequester, despite spending cuts, and then to have it only tweaked slightly in the Ryan-Murray budget agreement.

Income-tax increases have been avoided on all but couples making $450,000 annually. The result is what liberals call “austerity.”

Meanwhile, Obama has been repealing and revising Obamacare, whether the Constitution gives him authority or not. His signature law is disintegrating.

So Republicans, though controlling only the House and squabbling over tactics, have shifted the vector of national policy. They have had even more policy success in many of the majority of states with Republican governors and legislatures.

Tea-party spokesmen are, unsurprisingly, dissatisfied with the results — as peace advocates often were by policies of even Democratic administrations. But in American politics, policy success is never complete and almost always unsatisfactory to principled purists.

Political reporters chronicling the exhaustion of the tea-party movement focus on the apparent weakness of primary challenges to incumbent Republican senators and congressmen. None currently seems seriously endangered except possibly 36-year Mississippi senator Thad Cochran.

The tea-party movement continues to be frustrated by a politics-driven Internal Revenue Service and the intractability of Obama and Senate Democrats.

But Republicans have a solid chance to win a Senate majority, and Obama’s approval is stuck in negative territory. Big-government liberalism, hailed as the wave of the future in 2009, now seems widely discredited.

The tea-party obituaries, like Mark Twain’s, are premature.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner. © 2014 The Washington Examiner. Distributed by

Tea Party at 5
As the tea-party movement celebrates its fifth anniversary on the American political scene, here’s a look at some highlights and imagery from its first half-decade. Pictured, tea partiers rally on Capitol Hill, June 2013.
February 2009: CNBC analyst Rick Santelli’s rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on February 19 provides the spark that begins the tea-party movement. Santelli was reacting to a homeowner bailout plan proposed by the incoming Obama administration and charged that “government is promoting bad behavior.”
April 2009: The first major tea-party protests take place in more than 30 cities on February 27. More rallies occur on tax day in April, in what would become an annual event nationwide. Pictured, tax-day protest in Nashville, Tenn.
Tax day in Lansing, Mich., 2009
Tax day in Philadelphia, Pa., 2009
Tax day rally in Syracuse, N.Y., 2009
b>August 2009: Protesters converge on town-hall meetings to vent their anger over the emerging health-care reform legislation. Pictured, protesters swarm a town-hall meeting in Tampa, Fla., featuring Representative Kathy Castor.
Said one protester to Senator Phil Specter at a Pennsylvania meeting: “I got news for you. You and your cronies in the government do this kind of stuff all the time. One day, God is going to stand before you and he’s going to judge you!”
September 2009: The Taxpayer March on Washington on September 12 brings tens of thousands of tea partiers to protest federal spending and the growth of government.
February 2010: Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin cements her role as a tea-party voice at her keynote address to the Tea Party Nation convention. Said Palin: “America is ready for another revolution.”
Marking the one-year anniversary of the Tea Party, February 2010.
Tax day in Washington, D.C., 2010.
Tax day in Springfield, Ill., April 2010.
October 2010: The breadth of support for the tea party gets a surprising demonstration when former Velvet Underground member Maureen “Moe” Tucker” is interviewed at a rally in Tifton, Georgia. Said Tucker: “This ‘administration’ has HAS TO GO!”
From the start, tea-party rallies included nods to colonial-era America and the Boston Tea Party, including tricorn hats and the Gadsden Flag featuring the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” Pictured, a rally on Capitol Hill in April, 2012.
Some protesters embraced the “tea-bagger” epithet used by critics of the movement in its early days.
November 2010: Rand Paul is elected senator from Kentucky, and goes on to found the Senate Tea Party Caucus, though initially gets only three other senators — Mike Lee, Jim DeMint, and Jerry Moran — to come onboard (Marco Rubio notably declines).
January 2011: Minnesota representative Michele Bachmann slams the Obama administration’s “unprecedented explosion of government spending and debt” in the first televised tea-party response to the State of the Union address, and argues that “the Tea Party is a dynamic force for good in our national conversation.”
November 2012: Ted Cruz is elected to the Senate, and becomes a major voice for tea-party concerns.
June 2013: The Tea Party weighs in on the developing IRS targeting scandal. Pictured, protesters cheer during an “Audit the IRS” rally in Washington.
More of the crowds at the “Audit the IRS” rally, June 2013
More signs at the “Audit the IRS” rally.
Glenn Beck addresses the “Audit the IRS” rally.
A man dressed as Captain America marches on Capitol Hill, June 2013.
September 2013: Ted Cruz uses a debate on a federal spending bill to stage a 21-hour filibuster urging the repeal of Obamacare. The filibuster was doomed to fail, but galvanized support for Cruz (and frustration from some of his Senate GOP colleagues).
October 2013: Tea partiers protest the closure of national park facilities, including the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., where Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Sarah Palin address the crowd.
The battle goes on...
Updated: Mar. 03, 2014