WASHINGTON, D.C. — Senior Democrats are dancing on what they see as the grave of the Tea Party movement, whose political brand they tried — successfully — to badly tarnish.
Not a single major speaker at the Republican National Convention in Tampa spoke the words “Tea Party,” and despite being the dominant movement of the 2010 midterms and having a deep effect on Republican Party politics, many of its leaders and members have faded into Republican ranks and off the national stage with the mass rallies of 2010 now just memories. Tea Party figures say they’ve refocused on local politics, but top Democrats say they’ve gone into hiding.
“I think what makes them a dirty word is that when they first came into power nobody knew what they were. When I was running in 2010 tea party groups would picket my little events. And I would go over to them and they’d say ‘senator get the your government’s hands out of my pockets.’ And I’d say ‘what kind of health care do ya got?’ and they’d say ‘Medicare. Don’t you touch it,’” New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a top party strategist, said. “It was filled with contradictions. It was based on anger, a belief that the America they knew and believed was drifting away from them.”
Schumer called the Tea Party’s low, low new profile “great,” and took a modicum of credit for its decline.
“I think I helped move the process along a little bit but the fundamental building blocks were there,” he said, adding that he hopes an Obama victory in November will act as the final stake in the heart for the insurgent conservative movement and help usher in a new era of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats.
Democratic leaders launched a concerted effort to tar the Tea Party, and the GOP by association, and the general election campaign has seen that effort’s effect.
“It’s not surprising that their pollsters, their spinmeisters have told them, ‘don’t mention the tea party,’ because that’s not what America wants,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who along with Schumer has been instrumental in Democrats’ efforts to portray the term Tea Party in a bad light and tying it to Republicans.
In 2009, Republicans quickly saw the power of the Tea Party, which arose from the worsening economy and President Barack Obama’s determined effort to rework the nation’s health care system. Fueled by anger from largely white, middle and working class Reagan Democrats, the movement quickly developed into a powerful political force, turning out tens of thousands of citizens at rallies across the country and forcing Democrats onto the defensive for their health care votes.
Sensing the souring mood of the country Republicans – many of whom had voted for massive spending increases during the Bush administration – jumped on the Tea Party bandwagon, appearing at their rallies, weaving the movement’s name into their speeches and even starting a Tea Party Caucus in the House.
The movement helped fuel the GOP’s resurgence in 2010 while battering Democrats, and on election night it helped deliver control of the House to Speaker John Boehner.
But in the two years since, the Tea Party has quickly gone from the proverbial ring every GOP candidate had to kiss if they hoped to win election to persona non grata at the convention and in the speeches of top lawmakers and party leaders.
By the end of last year’s debt ceiling fight, the tide had clearly turned: the public had become increasingly disenchanted with the nonstop brinksmanship in Washington and the refusal to compromise. By April of this year, 51 percent of people polled said the more they heard about the movement the less they liked, compared with just 27 percent who felt the opposite.
And by July, a New York Times/CBS poll showed only 26 percent of respondents considered themselves supporters of the movement, while 65 percent said they did not.
Democrats, sensing the change in the nation’s mood, quickly seized on it, making “Tea Party Republicans” their mantra, working tirelessly to make the term synonymous with gridlock and a rejection of compromise.
At his weekly pen and pads with reporters, Hoyer would repeatedly call his Republican colleagues Speaker John Boehner’s “Tea Party Republicans,” hammering on the notion – deserved or not – that the party had become beholden to a constituency that rejected traditional legislative compromise.
Likewise, Schumer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spent months derisively referring to Tea Party Republicans in their public statements and messaging, blaming the movement for the gridlock that has frozen Washington for the last two years.
But while Republicans may no longer be touting their movement credentials or giving the Tea Party shout outs in their speeches, Republicans insist they are still living up to the movement’s ideals.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy said that while he did not realize the phrase Tea Party was absent from the GOP convention’s main stage said the principles the movement stands for were prevalent and remain a part of the party’s identity.
“I think what the Tea Party stands for is fiscal responsibility, a different economic direction. I think all those issues that the Tea Party cares about were mentioned on the stage. And I think that is what people were looking for,” McCarthy said Monday.
Indeed, the Tea Party’s basic ideas and goals — a deep resistance to the role of government, first and foremost — remain deeply ingrained in the Republican psyche. In fact, Democrats agreed that while the Tea Party may no longer play a visible in GOP politics, its influence remains.
“The Tea Party has certainly not disappeared or left the stage. In fact the Tea Party is very much influential in the House of Representatives and the United States Senate,” Hoyer argued.
Schumer agreed, saying that Republicans are ultimately just hiding their Tea Party roots.
“Their convention, they avoided what they believe in. They didn’t say they want a voucher system for Medicare, they said they want to ‘save Medicare,’ and that’s all they said,” Schumer said.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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