Two stories that might seem to contradict each other ran in the New York Times this week. One declared the Tea Party movement “significantly weakened” in the wake of November’s elections and on its way to becoming “just another political faction.” The other noted that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell might be concerned about a potential 2014 primary challenge – enough to filibuster any fiscal cliff plan that President Obama and Democrats draw up, no matter how modest.
The problem, of course, is that the Tea Party’s power resides in Republican primaries, where conservative purists wreaked considerable havoc in the past two election cycles. This included, famously, McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, where the minority leader’s protégé was crushed in a 2010 GOP Senate primary by Rand Paul. Now McConnell has to worry about suffering a similar fate in two years, especially if his handling of the current fiscal impasse evokes cries of treason from the base. How could this square with claims of fading clout for the Tea Party?
Actually, there’s a way. It just depends on how you understand the Tea Party.
Defined as a literal movement, with an active membership pressing a specific set of demands, the Tea Party absolutely is in decline. Tea Party events have become less crowded, less visible and less relevant to the national political conversation. As the Times story notes, the movement’s die-hards are embracing increasingly niche pet issues. The term “Tea Party” has come to feel very 2010.
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