TAMPA, Fla. — Only a handful of the thousands of delegates and guests at the Republican National Convention sported ‘Don’t Believe the Liberal Media!” buttons. Only one woman could be seen wearing tea bags attached to her hat. A few “Don’t Tread On Me” flags poked through the crowd, but they mostly belonged to Ron Paul supporters.
Of the convention's 55 prime time speakers, only two really qualify as Tea Party figures. Not a single prime time speech included the words “Tea Party.”
And so movement that dominated Republican Party in 2010, sending outspoken representatives to both chambers of Congress and state and local governments, was invisible at the RNC, where the only surprises came from the Paul people, Clint Eastwood, and Hurricane Isaac.
Otherwise, everything went smoothly and according to the Romney campaign’s careful plan, which appears to have been to behave as though the Tea Party never happened.
This surprising silence comes partly because Tea Party politics have become establishment politics. Activists who were once on the fringe, angrily shouting at marches on the Mall, have now been absorbed and have become regular conservative Republicans. It’s partly due to the increased bureaucratization of the Tea Party itself, which no longer sees itself as a protest movement but as a counterweight to the establishment Republican Party, and which has embraced the insurgent conservative grassroots much more than the libertarian Paul castoffs. The convention’s producers also appear to have been wary that a strong Tea Party presence at the convention would disrupt the convention’s slick programming, which is aimed at appealing to undecided voters and independents as well as party faithful.
“The tea party has a huge presence at this convention without saying the word ‘tea party,’” said Herman Cain, the former presidential candidate who has turned himself into a movement hero. “Here’s the thing: The Tea Party is no longer an isolated group of conservatives — it is so wide and so vast, you’ve got a lot of tea party sitting on that convention floor and they’re delegates and alternates.”
“In other words they’re not trying to be different from the Republican Party, they’re trying to help change the Republican Party from the inside,” Cain said. “So they don’t have to say ‘Tea Party’.”
Others said the Tea Party has receded back into the broader conservative grassroots from which it sprung, and which long predate the 2010 revival.
“When and if the tea party guys joined the local and state parties, they got absorbed by the conservative grassroots, which they substantially resembled ideologically and culturally,” said Soren Dayton, a Republican political consultant. “By contrast, when the Ron Paul supporters, who were more different both ideologically and culturally, did, the conservative grassroots and the establishment of the party often got nervous and pushed back.”
This was in evidence at the convention, where the tea partiers — if they were there at all — were impossible to distinguish from the regular conservatives on the convention floor. The Ron Paul supporters, who mounted loud revolts on the floor and in the halls during convention proceedings, were not, though they found allies in some of the Tea Party types during a dispute over a rules change pushed through by Romney backers.
"There are Tea Party people here too," said Luis LaRotta, a Paul supporting delegate from Texas, during a press conference they called to discuss the rules changes. "There's no campaign without the grassroots."
But it was hard to find any noticeable Tea Partiers in the crowd at the press conference; nearly everyone wore at least one Ron Paul button.
That isn’t to say that the politics espoused by the Tea Party have gone away. “A survey of delegates would probably show a high degree of sympathy for ‘tea party’ positions,” Dayton said.
While there was next to no talk of the Tea Party on the convention floor — even from Texas Senate candidate Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, both Tea Party darlings — groups from the Tea Party world did hold events surrounding the convention, especially in a big white tent next to the convention center called “Liberty Plaza.”
There, Rick Santorum held a rally for his new organization, Patriot Voices, next door to a party for Wisconsin Republicans that did not attract their big winners of the year, Paul Ryan and Scott Walker.
The Santorum rally attracted about 100 conservatives to hear social conservative leaders Gary Bauer, Tony Perkins, and Santorum himself and eat hot dogs and brownies. Matt Romney, Mitt Romney’s son, made an attendance as a representative from the moderate establishment. Another marquee speaker was Cruz, who had alluded to the Tea Party in his convention speech, but not by name. Instead, he’d referred to it as a “Great Awakening”
At the Liberty Plaza rally, Cruz did mention the Tea Party.
“Sometimes when talking to folks in the media they ask, ‘Is the tea party going to support Mitt Romney?’” Cruz said. “I can tell you I’ve personally spoken to tens of thousands of tea party activists, and I happily consider myself one of them. And I do now know a single tea party activist anywhere who is not going to show up in November, pull the lever for Mitt Romney, and help defeat Barack Obama.”
The crowd cheered wildly — and these were a lot of the same people who voted for Santorum or Newt Gingrich in the primary.
“If any of y’all talk to our friends in the media, they like to focus on division,” Cruz said. “ ‘Well gosh, this chunk of Republicans won’t get along with that chunk of Republicans, and none of you like this third chunk of Republicans — listen, we’re all here because we believe in values and principles bigger than ourselves.”
Later, Cruz told BuzzFeed that he hadn’t purposefully avoided using the words “tea party” in his speech to the convention crowd (and national TV audience).
“The central theme of my remarks was a love story to freedom, and that is the idea that animates the Tea Party,” Cruz said. “And actually, I think every speaker at this convention has focused on the ideas behind the tea party, that the tea party arose in response to out of control government spending and debt and power. And every speaker at this convention has focused on the fundamental choice Americans have in November.”
Cruz echoed Cain on the Tea Party’s inclusion in the regular party.
“I think the Tea Party is playing a tremendous part in providing passion and enthusiasm at the grassroots level,” Cruz said. “And in helping the Republican Party get back to the core principles we should have been focusing on in the first place.”
The Tea Party has “led to a revival of the party and has produced a generation of new leaders in the party who are standing for liberty and standing for the Constitution,” Cruz said.
Inside the convention hall, every moment of the proceedings was scripted and vetted by Romney campaign and Republican National Committee staff, meaning that the absence of Tea Party mentions could also have reflected an intentional choice on their part. A Romney campaign spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether or not this was the case.
Liberty Plaza, of course, was outside the Romney campaign’s sphere of influence (as evidenced by its program, which included an “Occupy Unmasked” Andrew Breitbart film). And it was where Cruz was able to let fly his own personal Tea Party flag.
“The people, grassroots conservatives, are quite rightly going to hold president Romney accountable,” Cruz said.