Politics

It’s No Accident That the Tea Party’s Presidential Candidates Keep Flaming Out

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Last week was a difficult week for the Tea Party. Tuesday’s election results firmly rebutted the idea that the movement had touched off an irresistible rightward wave in American politics, one that would not subside until it submerged the Democratic Party and its union/liberal allies once and for all. Meanwhile, the process of choosing a champion to drive Barack Obama out of the White House is not going well at all. With only seven weeks until actual caucus and primary voting begins, how did the movement arrive at this seemingly hopeless state?

Tea folk knew they’d have a fight on their hands, but they weren't prepared for it. They wanted to fight off the Beltway hacks and RINOs who had so disingenuously sucked up to the movement in its early days; the devious Mitt Romney was these types’ obvious choice, reflecting as he did their own lack of principle, so Tea Partiers would have to come up with their own candidate. Their chosen method for asserting their interestsnamely, by ruthlessly enforcing ideologically rigidityhas proven itself flawed, but they have stuck with it regardless. Despite the electoral defeats of Tea Party candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell in 2010, to most Tea Partiers the lesson of the midterm elections was that the only thing keeping the Republican Party from an enduring majority was its lack of ideological rigor and its cowardly refusal to adopt total war tactics. The very concept of political “overreach,” the term most often applied to the losing side in Ohio’s recent Issue 2 battle, is alien to the Tea Party mind, in which extremism in the defense of liberty is never a vice.

As we've seen, the movement has enough size and muscle to give its preferred candidates significant national clout. But with its ideological extremism and insularity, it has also been selecting for candidates who are all but guaranteed to succumb to the intense public scrutiny of a presidential race. It's no accident that we have seen so many Republicans ascend to frontrunner status, only to flame out in glorious balls of fire.

 

ALL ALONG, Tea Party supporters have been holding their own mini-primary during the lead-in to actual voting. Initially, their problem seemed to be an embarrassment of riches when it came to candidates seeking their favor. With Sarah Palin on the sidelines, Michele Bachmann was often called the “Queen of the Tea Party.” But despite her win at the Iowa GOP Straw Poll and her frontrunner status in many national polls, Tea Partiers abandoned her for what then looked like a behemoth of a candidate in Rick Perry, who had thrilled hyper-conservatives in Texas with harsh anti-government rhetoric and event hints of secession as a last resort.

But having brushed aside Bachmann and other Tea Party favorites, Perry promptly lost most of his Tea Party admirers when he reiterated and then clumsily defended his support for making the children of undocumented workers eligible for in-state tuition at Texas collegesa position that Tea Partiers found deeply offensive, especially when he made the supreme mistake of saying those who disagreed with him had “no heart.” 

When Perry crashed, it was not surprising that Tea Partiers flocked to the banner of Herman Cain, one of the earliest Tea Party boosters as a nationally syndicated radio talk show host. The glib former pizza executive seemed the epitome of the citizen-politician, fond of attractively simplistic cure-alls like a modified flat tax plan, long popular in Tea circles. 

But just when non-Tea Partiers were coming to grips with the strange possibility that Cain would have to be taken seriously as a candidate, his amateurism, so attractive to his fans, began to undo him. Even if he forges his way through the current sexual harassment allegations without being proved a predator and a liar, the bloom is off his rose. The days when Cain could count on universally positive feelings from Republican voters are long gone, and there is a palpable fear (nicely reflected by Michelle Bachmann’s comment that the GOP couldn’t afford any “surprises” from its nominee) that he is one press conference away from complete, final disaster. Any chance that Rick Perry could quickly ride back into contention, meanwhile, probably expired during the November 9 debate in Michigan. Questions about Perry’s debating skills aside, any Tea Party champion worth his salt can list the federal agencies he’d shut down in his sleep.

Which brings us to the movement’s current, desperate state. As ace political analyst Ron Brownstein recently noted, there are virtually no signs of growing Tea Party acceptance of Mitt Romney as the “inevitable” nominee; instead, there is incipient panic that the inability of the right to settle on a competent candidate could let Romney win by default. Brownstein quotes FreedomWorks spokesperson Adam Brandon as saying his group may decide to endorse someoneanyonein order to stop Romney and avoid a division of the Tea Party vote. But who?

Some Tea Party supporters greatly admire Ron Paul as a prophet whose cranky monetary theories and cheerful support for a return to Coolidge administration levels of taxation and spending have now become mainstream. But as a battery of four late-October state polls conducted by CNN illustrated, Paul actually draws a majority of his support from non-Tea Party Republicans and Independents, and it’s implausible in any event that super-patriots will rally around a candidate who defends Iran’s right to pursue nuclear weapons. Michelle Bachmann, for her part, hasn’t had a good week on the campaign trail since August. 

It is possible that the lightly regarded Rick Santorum, who is slavishly reduplicating Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign strategy in Iowa, could pull off a surprise in the first caucus state by finishing ahead of a collapsing Perry and Cain. If that were to happen, the Pennsylvanian could become a Christian Right/Tea Party lighting rod, and his views are more acceptable to right-wing power centers like the Club for Growth than were Huck’s four years ago. 

The only non-Romney candidate with positive momentum in the polls, however, is Newt Gingrich. He’s certainly among the last candidates you’d figure to become a vehicle for the Tea Party Movement. He is, after all, the consummate career politician, someone who by his own admission began fantasizing about political power from a very early age. Conservatives graphically recall how Bill Clinton ran circles around Gingrich during their period of shared power in the late 1990s. His horrific mistake last May of dismissing Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as unrealistic was precisely the kind of Beltway thinking Tea Party activists hate, and hurt him as much in Tea circles as Perry’s later heresies on immigration. And for those worried about Cain’s history with women, is Gingrich-the-admitted-adulterer, whose campaign earlier imploded because he’d rather cruise the Mediterranean with his third wife than attend to his campaign, a better bet? 

The very fact that it’s possible to discuss Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum as practical options for the once-invincible right-wing movement shows how rapidly it has lost its way. If you were to script the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest according to the most lurid Tea Party conspiracy theories of secret Establishment manipulation of events, the results would look a lot like what we are seeing right now.

But no elaborate conspiracy theories are needed to explain the collapse of all the movement’s various champions. They wanted hard-core ideologues who scorned experience, conventional political skills, and any hint of sweet reasonableness, and that’s what they got: candidates likely to crumble under the glare of a national spotlight or be torn down for insufficient orthodoxy by the movement’s very supportersor, in the case of most figures who have already risen and fallen during this election cycle, both.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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