There are signs the Tea Party may be over 

Five years of arch-conservative revolution has left the party exhausted by infighting


It was the Rant that changed a nation. Five years ago, Rick Santelli, a commentator for the financial news cable channel CNBC, let rip live from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. To cheers from traders, he lambasted the Obama administration, in office barely a month, for helping undeserving home owners who had mortgages they couldn’t afford, “losers” who would now be rescued with money from more prudent hardworking taxpayers. American capitalism was at risk, Santelli raged: “We’re thinking of having a Chicago tea party in July.”

At that moment, political legend has it, the Tea Party was born. Given its decentralised nature, with plenty of stars but no acknowledged leader, others might offer a different narrative. One thing, however, cannot be disputed. Since 2009, the Tea Party has transformed the Republican party, and with it American politics.

This patchwork alliance of grass-roots conservative activists, which draws its strength from its opposition to the establishment, quickly identified the two most powerful issues driving Republican campaigns today: the runaway national debt and President Obama’s healthcare reforms, which its members savaged at the town hall meetings during the summer 2009 that turned the Tea Party into a household name.

The following year, 18 months after the Rant, the movement achieved its greatest triumph as Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, with a net gain of 63 seats. It was the largest such swing on Capitol Hill since 1938. Briefly the Tea Party became the most popular political movement in the US, outstripping both Democrats and orthodox Republicans.

But, as so often, revolutionaries dizzy with success now seek to devour their own. Avowed Tea Partiers, numbering several dozen in the House, have rendered the chamber unworkable by their frequent refusal to follow the voting line laid down by John Boehner, the Speaker and their theoretical boss. Now they are challenging the party’s Senate and House leaders in the primary elections, starting this week, to select candidates for this November’s Congressional midterms. Long their own party’s greatest source of energy, the Tea Party movement now also constitutes its greatest problem, one side in the civil war for the Republican soul.

“Liberty is never safer than when politicians are terrified,” Ted Cruz, the brash Texas Senator and Tea Party idol, declared at a fifth birthday bash for the movement here last week. And no politicians are more terrified than Republican grandees, accustomed to rubber-stamp victories against Democrats in general elections, who find themselves challenged in a primary.

Republican primaries are dominated by activists who are invariably arch-conservative. To satisfy such an electorate, the incumbent must therefore move to the extreme right to silence his or her critics – and maintain that stance when he gets to Washington for fear of more trouble next time. To enough House and Senate Republicans, reaching accommodation with one’s adversary, essential to functioning government, has become a dirty word – without it, though, Congress is unworkable.

Tea Partiers would not have it otherwise. For them, deviation from those anti-government principles on display in Boston harbour in 1773 is at the root of all national evil. Rectitude, embodied by self-evident ideological truth, cannot be compromised. By 2012, however, this “terrify-the politicians” approach was backfiring.

With Obama likely to remain in power until 2016, the Republicans’ goal was to add control of the Senate to that of the House, and thus make life even more difficult for the President. The Tea Partiers forgot, however, that to win a Senate seat you must prevail not only in a primary but in the general election too. Tea Party candidates did win some stunning primary victories over mainstream Republican opponents, only to scare off the independent and moderate voters essential to beating a Democrat opponent. Had not Republicans been saddled with such unelectable candidates, they might have captured the Senate too by 2012.

Instead, they’re at it again. A dozen Republican senators seek re-election in November; six of those are facing primary challenges from Tea Party-aligned opponents, starting on Tuesday in Texas, where John Cornyn, the second-ranking senate Republican, should easily see off his chief opponent, Steve Stockman, whose conduct has grown so wacky that even local Tea Party groups have disowned him. In May, Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader, will go through the primary mill in Kentucky. Like Cornyn, he will almost certainly win comfortably.

The remarkable thing, however, is that the pair are being challenged at all. In almost any other era they would be considered as conservative as they come. But not in America’s Republican party of the early 21st century. In the House a similar indignity is being forced upon Boehner and his deputy, the majority leader Eric Cantor. Again, a serious primary challenge to an incumbent Speaker, funded in part by deep-pocketed conservative action groups, would once have been unthinkable.

The worm, though, may be turning and the high-water mark of the Tea Party may have passed. Even political parties get fed up with self-defeating civil war. The government shut-down of last autumn, brought about by Cruz and other Tea Partiers, was a PR disaster for Republicans, who were only spared greater embarrassment by the dreadfully mismanaged launch of Obamacare a few days later.

After years of biting his tongue, Boehner has vented his exasperation at the Tea Party rebels and the groups that bankroll them. So too has McConnell. “We’re done being the stupid party,” he is said to have told a recent fundraiser. “We’re done nominating candidates who can’t win general elections.” And some Tea Party stars in the House are now getting a taste of their own medicine, facing primary challenges from moderates, supported by mainstream financial backers. But for some the thrill will never fade. The Rant, Santelli declared the other day, “was professionally the best five minutes of my life”.

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