Politics & Policy

Return of the Tea Party

Lesson of the Obama scandals: “We were right and the government was wrong.”

Activists who had not protested en masse since the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act over a year ago descended last week on IRS offices across the country, decrying the agency’s discrimination against them. In Washington, Congress’s colorful tea-party caucus reemerged, too. At a press conference on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Texas representative Louie Gohmert took to the podium to call the president a “tyrannical despot,” and 2016 presidential hopeful Rand Paul demanded answers from the IRS. Newly energized by the scandals roiling the administration, tea-party activists and lawmakers who associate themselves with the movement are looking to convert the outrage among their members into conservative victories in next year’s midterm elections.

“It’s a perfect storm,” FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe says of the trio of scandals that have rocked the White House back onto its heels. He compares the furor ignited by the current White House scandals to the outrage sparked by the Wall Street bailouts and the $700 billion stimulus bill that gave birth to the first tea-party protests in 2008, when the yellow Gadsden flag, with the words “Don’t Tread On Me” emblazoned across it, became a fixture of the country’s political landscape.

#ad#The renewed drive is the result of what tea partiers see as a major vindication. The IRS’s admission that it was targeting groups such as Marion Bower’s American Patriots against Government Excess has affirmed Bower’s belief that, as she says, “we were right and the government was wrong.” (When Bower applied for 501(c)(4) status, the IRS asked her to provide synopses of the group’s reading materials. She mailed back a copy of the Constitution.) Keli Carender, a national grassroots coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, says that the scandal provided her group reassurance. “We’re not just making things up, we’re not just complaining,” she says. “Obviously, this sort of stuff can and does happen. It’s a great illustration of how the things we are warning about can happen with big government.”

The scandals enveloping the administration are also striking a nerve with tea-party activists because they illustrate the movement’s fundamental principles — that smaller government is better government and that the federal bureaucracy inherently tends toward corruption. The recent revelations that have left so many aghast confirm their view that cronyism and bullying are features rather than bugs of an ever-expanding federal system. “A lot of tea partiers read this news with great frustration, because it’s not news to them,” Kibbe says.

Before the recent scandal-fueled resurgence of the Tea Party, the movement’s visibility had been on the decline over the past year. Leaders attribute this decline to a lack of enthusiasm among their members for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney as well as to the natural ebb and flow of any grassroots movement. “The energy to go and stand out on the street, rain or shine . . . comes from not knowing what else to do,” Carender says. Between the 2010 midterm elections and the recent Obama scandals, tea-party activists were exercising their influence in quieter ways. “People were funneling their energy into mundane activities that nobody could see, attending city-council meetings, local-government board meetings, doing educational things in their communities,” Carender adds. Kibbe concurs, noting that many movement stalwarts who protested in 2009 and 2010 turned their attention to effecting change on the local level in the intervening years. That is, until the IRS scandal brought people out into the streets again.

Both tea-party leaders and Republican lawmakers expect the movement to play an important role in the 2014 midterm elections — particularly because Obamacare, the legislation that drew such fierce opposition from tea partiers in 2009 and 2010, goes into action next year. “The combination of the IRS scandal and the implementation of Obamacare really puts the entire political conversation back in our court,” Kibbe says. “These are issues that have always defined our community’s activism.” Like Kibbe, Bower anticipates that her group will be “actively involved” in the midterm election. While “disillusioned” with some GOP leaders — she mentions her anger and “disgust” with “RINOs like John McCain and Lindsey Graham” — she remains focused on the issue that matters most right now to many tea partiers: Obamacare. Fighting it will be her group’s main focus, she says, “especially with one of the officials in the IRS scandal now in charge of it.”

#page#Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has also predicted that Obamacare will be the defining issue of the midterm cycle, telling NBC’s David Gregory, “I think it’s coming back big time.” GOP aides echo his sentiments. One senior Republican Senate staffer predicts that Obamacare, with the Tea Party’s help, will “sting” Democrats in 2014. “Regardless of these scandals, Obamacare’s coming online and people either losing their health insurance or having to pay dramatically more is going to be a big issue,” says another senior GOP aide.

#ad#The nature of the Tea Party’s activism, however, will not be the same in 2014 as it was in previous elections. The movement is better organized and more politically adept than it was when it spontaneously emerged in 2008. Critics point to the Tea Party’s support for Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell in 2010 as a major misstep. By contrast, Texas senator Ted Cruz, whom tea-party groups backed last year over his party-backed primary opponent, has been a runaway success.

Next year, the movement is more likely to unite behind incumbent Republicans rather than mount challenges against them. In 2010, the Tea Party backed the candidacies of Utah’s Mike Lee, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, and Florida’s Marco Rubio; they each knocked off either an incumbent officeholder or a party-backed favorite to earn the GOP nomination. In Congress, the Tea Party Caucus now counts nearly 50 lawmakers in its ranks.

A senior GOP aide says the Tea Party is less likely to challenge incumbents next year because the movement is “focused first and foremost on winning.”

Kibbe explains it differently. From his vantage point, many primary challenges are no longer necessary because conservatives have already achieved an important victory. “To a great extent, [Republican lawmakers] have changed their behavior,” he observes. “They’ve rediscovered their fiscal conservatism thanks to the Tea Party.” In open seats, though, the movement will work to ensure that the GOP nominates the most fiscally conservative candidate on the ballot.

If the Tea Party has become flexible in its tactics, the principles and issues that drive it have remained constant. FreedomWorks is keeping a calendar of every important step in the implementation of Obamacare between now and January 2014, and it will work to mobilize its activists around these dates. Kibbe aims to translate the opportunity created by the current scandals into positive change, and he will work to convert the recent surge of energy into tangible legislative victories. “We want to make sure that the people on our side now take it all the way,” he says, which means reining in the IRS and the rest of the federal government. “Otherwise we haven’t really accomplished anything.”

— Eliana Johnson is media editor of National Review Online.

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