It has finally happened: The Tea Party is dead.
The grassroots movement that fought so hard for fiscal sanity in government over the past decade is no more. It was killed off by the very same Washington establishment it sought to overthrow. Its death leaves proponents of limited government with some big questions: What went wrong? And what do we do now?
For me, it's personal. For years, the Tea Party was my life, and I have the the battle scars—and tattoos—to prove it. When I was the President of FreedomWorks, I worked side by side with tens of thousands of citizen activists as a Tea Party organizer, organizing protests and knocking on doors, hoping to topple the Goliath of government. But now the party's over.
I know, you've heard it before. Virtually every Beltway pundit in DC has pronounced the Tea Party dead at one time or another. Republican Senators well past their sell-by dates and Democratic apparatchiks alike have gleefully built a cottage industry on the prediction.
But this time is different. Republicans, now controlling both the legislative and executive branches, jammed through a "CRomnibus" spending bill that strips any last vestiges of spending restraint from the budget process.
Gone are the Tea Party's biggest and most hard-fought policy victory—mandatory caps in domestic and defense spending. The budget deal replaces them with $300 billion in new spending over the next two years, and, in all likelihood, sets a precedent for greater spending in the decade to come.
It's 2009 all over again, with trillion dollar deficits, and red ink as far as the eye—or at least CBO projections—can see. As budget deals go, it's a total fiasco.
The supposed fiscal hawks in the House Freedom Caucus drew a line in the sand on House budget plan that was only slightly less bad. They demanded "full funding for the military and community health centers."
In the Senate, Rand Paul and Mike Lee fought the good fight, but they couldn't even convince Ted Cruz to stand firm. Cruz, the one-time Tea Party darling, "reluctantly" supported the spending measure, making sure to itemize all of the spending increases he helped procure with his fellow Texas senator, John Cornyn, while simultaneously decrying "unfettered spending." Cruz's statement is world class political jujitsu.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of Republicans and Democrats in our nation's capitol celebrating the Tea Party's demise. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the primary architect of this steaming pile of budget prolificacy, has been actively plotting the Tea Party's demise for years.
So what went wrong? Ultimately, I think partisan politics broke the Tea Party.
To understand what I mean, we need to clear away some popular tropes employed by critics to discredit what I still believe to be one of the most important social movements in my lifetime.
The Tea Party was never the product of some top-down design, and it wasn't owned or controlled by anyone. It was organic and leaderless. That's why it was so powerful, fueled by new social technologies that allowed citizens to self organize outside of traditional political parties. Like-minded people, once anonymous and silent, found each other and found their collective voice.
The Tea Party also wasn't partisan. It was held together by a common set of values that united an otherwise disparate group. What did the Tea Party stand for? I would ask everyone I met as I traveled the country. The answer was always some iteration of the same thing: "Individual freedom, fiscal responsibility, constitutionally-limited government, and free markets."
This consistency of purpose made the Tea Party community a potent counter balance to the typical special interest inertia that drives the growth of government. The grassroots backlash against the Obama Administration's "shovel ready" stimulus spending shifted broad public opinion against the package. The same thing happened with Obamacare, which became so unpopular that even deep blue Massachusetts rejected it by electing Republican Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy's Senate seat.
If not for some amazingly underhanded and Constitution-bending procedural games played by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Tea Party would have succeeded in killing Obamacare. Even still, the fact that the fight over Obamacare consumed the entirety of Obama's domestic agenda for eight years no doubt killed countless bad ideas before they ever saw the light of day.
At some point, people started to notice. The Tea Party's enemies started to look for leaders to negotiate with, to deal with. But there were no leaders—or rather, there were tens of thousands. That was its greatest strength, and its biggest weakness.
I still remember being back stage at the massive 9/12 march on Washington in 2009. Over a million activists had shown up, and as word got out, the politicians started showing up too. They circled like sharks behind the stage, hoping to get at the microphone. We kept them off that day. But ultimately more and more opportunists got onto the Tea Party stage, wanting to "lead" a leaderless movement.
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