It has been nearly two years since the historic 2010 congressional midterm elections, which saw the once-nascent Tea Party blitz into power and help seize control of the House, sending a message to both Democrats and establishment Republicans alike that it is there to change the country’s political composition. However, available information belies the narrative depicting the grassroots movement as monumentally successful. From both an electability and a policy perspective, the Tea Party, despite emerging and remaining a vocal and passionate voice in national politics, has not been as efficacious a movement as convention maintains.
Electability: Although it might seem reasonable to conclude that electability is a Tea Party strength, particularly given the 2010 midterm results, the data suggests otherwise. While it cannot be denied that 2010 was a GOP year, it is disingenuous to attribute the widespread Republican success merely to new Tea Party strength. Indeed, during the 2010 elections only 32% of Tea Party-affiliated candidates were victorious, compared to 61.4% who were defeated. Moreover, some of the most ardent Tea Partiers – from Christine O’Donnell in Delaware to Sharron Angle in Nevada – faced humiliating defeats, inciting Republican strategist and Bush II advisor Karl Rove to criticize O’Donnell and Tea Party recklessness, representing establishment Republicans’ unease with the near-fanatical group.
2012, meanwhile, has been a similar mixed bag. The defeat of veteran Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) by comparatively inexperienced tea party favorite Richard Mourdock was a boost to Tea Party credibility, although it remains the Tea Party’s lone primary victory thus far. Furthermore, Lugar’s increasing unpopularity leading up to the primary and missteps during the primary suggest the result was more a function of Lugar’s inability to atone for his errors and mount an aggressive reelection campaign and less an indication of true Mourdock strength. Other early contests have not been favorable for the tea party. Tuesday night in Texas, no GOP incumbent lost to Tea Party challengers, although Tea Partier Ted Cruz was able to force a runoff for the open Senate seat against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst – the only bright spot on an otherwise abysmal night for the tea party. How Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch fares in his own June primary will further help gauge the Tea Party’s longevity.
Policy: From a policy perspective, the Tea Party overwhelmingly opposes President Barack Obama’s programme, from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) to his foreign policy platform to equal marriage rights for the LGBT community. Indeed, the Tea Party largely rode to power on anti-Obama rhetoric and campaign promises. But while the Tea Party stridently opposes seemingly any and all of Obama’s policies, it has simultaneously failed to drive any substantive legislation of its own in nearly two years, neither original nor alternative to Democrat proposals. More often, the Tea Party’s actions are geared towards blocking rival legislation or holding symbolic votes, like the futile attempt to repeal the PPACA in early 2011.
There is also the issue of congressional deadlock. Although it has never been an easy task to maneuver the complex imbroglio of constitutionally shackled institutions governed by politicians in possession of massive ambitions and egos while beholden to fundamentally dissimilar constituents and produce favorable legislation, the advent of the tea party may have hampered an already sluggish process. While congressional approval ratings have been far from stellar recently, the Tea Party years elicited the poorest ratings. According to a December 2011 Gallup Politics report, Congress faced a record low approval rating, a meager 11%, at the end of 2011. Previous Congresses in 2001, 2004, and 2007, meanwhile, enjoyed 56%, 41%, and 28% approval ratings, respectively. Obviously, there is a downward trend evident in the last 10-12 years, but the correlation between the lowest congressional approval rating in history and the rise of the Tea Party in American politics is too significant to overlook. Also, the Tea Party may be dumbing down, for lack of a better phrase, the general intellectual makeup of Congress. Recent reports indicate that the speaking abilities of congressmen have lowered to a high school sophomore level, on average. Tea partiers, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, were at the bottom of the list – unsurprising given the most extreme members of both parties garnered dismal rankings on the spectrum. The combination of minimal original or alternative legislation, induced intransigence, low approval ratings, and perhaps even poor oratory abilities suggest the Tea Party has not reached the level of success one might initially think.
Of course, none of this suggests that the Tea Party will fail to be a player in national politics in the coming years. One of the foundations of the American political system and civic life in general is all perspectives are welcome at the table. However, the evidence does suggest that the Tea Party has been a less-than-stellar force within the same system it so zealously burst into during the hot summer months of 2009, and unless a major institutional or power shakeup occurs, there is no reason to believe the tea party will be any more successful in 2013 and beyond than it has been since 2010.