When you're listing the losers of this election cycle—not just on Tuesday but all year—be sure to include the Tea Party movement. You might have missed the sustained beating it took throughout the campaign, given how hard the Democrats worked to paint the Romney/Ryan ticket as a tricorne-wearing Godzilla lurching toward a helpless village. But consider this sequence of events:
• A wave of weak candidates—Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry—attracted a Tea Party following and then imploded. The only one of these who ever had a credible path to the nomination was Perry, and he blew it with one of the most cringe-inducing debate meltdowns in campaign history.
• Desperate to prevent Mitt Romney, the etch-a-sketching architect of Obamacare, from taking the nomination, Tea Partiers found themselves voting for Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, two men closely associated with the Republican "revolution" of 1994—and, more important, with the descent of the Congress thus elected into heavy spending and corporate cronyism. When the Tea Party movement began, its activists saw themselves as rebels against the Republican establishment; they had little good to say about what the GOP Congress had become. Now many of them were falling in behind Gingrich, the man who launched that Congress, and Santorum, a player in the corporatist K Street Project.
• Romney got the nomination. At the convention, his camp pushed through rule changes that greatly strengthened the party chiefs at the expense of local activists, making future insurgencies less likely to succeed. The Tea Partiers got the conservatives' usual consolation prize, the vice presidential nomination, with Paul Ryan inserted into the role previously played by Sarah Palin, Jack Kemp, and Dan Quayle. He immediately began to revise his positions where they conflicted with Romney's.
• Romney moved to the center. The Tea Partiers held their tongue. Now that the election is over, groups like the Tea Party Patriots are calling Romney a "weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment." But as the campaign concluded, the fear of Obama kept them mum.
• Obama won anyway.
Everyone understands that the last item on that list represents a defeat for the Tea Party platform, but it isn't as widely appreciated how much the earlier steps in the process were losses too. Yes, it means something that people like Gingrich and Santorum and Romney had to give Tea Party fans the rhetoric they wanted. Part of exercising political pressure, after all, is extracting promises from people who disagree with you. But promises, particularly in presidential primaries, often turn out to be lip service, something the left discovered when it thought it was electing an opponent of the national security state. It's certainly hard to believe—to bring up a scenario that both Republicans and Democrats invoked to get their voters to the polls—that a President Romney would have expended much effort trying to repeal Obama's health care legislation, or that he would have been able to get such a bill past the Democratic Senate if he'd tried.
There's more to the Tea Parties than a presidential race, of course, and there may be many more primary challenges and Tax Day protests to come. But the only element of the movement that's coming out of this week with many reasons to be happy is the one that never did fall in en masse behind Romney.
The Tea Party crowd had a complicated relationship with Ron Paul's supporters, and some of the latter would deny the Tea Party label. Others claim to be the original, uncorrupted Tea Party insurgency. Either way, they had a pretty good night on Tuesday. The Ron Paul Republican Justin Amash was reelected to Congress in Michigan, as were Paul's longtime allies Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee and Walter Jones of North Carolina; three anti-war, anti–PATRIOT Act, pro-legalization Republicans—Thomas Massie of Kentucky, Ted Yoho of Florida, and Kerry Bentivolio of Michigan—were elected for the first time. In the Senate, Paul's son Rand will be joined by the Paul-backed candidate Ted Cruz, who doesn't look as libertarian as the new blood in the House but does seem more anti-statist than the modal Senate Republican. The most Paulian presidential candidate on the November ballot, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, won over a million votes, a rare level of support for any third-party candidate and the highest raw total the LP has ever achieved.
The fact that I'm citing a million-vote showing as an impressive precedent is a sign that these people aren't really playing for presidential stakes. Not at the moment, anyway. But this is, at the very least, a trend worth watching. The constitutionalist caucus may be small, but unlike the broader Tea Party movement it has some momentum on its side.