The Tea Party’s Position in Congress: Weak, Actually

The Liberal Ironist began to suspect the Tea Party represented a major constituency that could reshape the Republican Party after reading an interesting article about its supporters which the New York Times ran back in February.  Having accepted that this was a real populist movement–as evidenced by a string of Republican primary upsets–I began to wonder whether the Tea Party movement would bear significant “brand” representation in Congress.  I had doubts that the Tea Party animus would transfer into warm bodies in Congressional seats, but if anything I’m actually surprised by how badly Tea Party candidates performed electorally.  The lesson here is that the Tea Party candidates which were broadly-perceived as kooks outside of the State or Congressional district they were running in were usually perceived as kooks within those States or districts as well.

NBC’s Alexandra Moe raised an interesting point on the Tea Party candidates’ electoral record, one previously anticipated in the Washington Post: They actually fared poorly in aggregate.  As of this writing (Wednesday night), counting several leans in races not yet called, only 42 out of 130 (32%) of House Tea Party candidates won, while 5 out of 10 Senate Tea Party candidates won.

For those disinclined to click the link to Moe’s post, the 5 Tea Party Senate candidates who won are Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania), Rand Paul (Kentucky), Marco Rubio (Florida), Ron Johnson (Wisconsin), and Mike Lee (Utah).  Paul and Lee were running in fairly-safe Republican states; Toomey, Rubio and Johnson undeniably had to earn their wins in traditional swing states.  The 5 Tea Party Senate candidates that lost are Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), Sharron Angle (Nevada), John Raese (West Virginia), Ken Buck (Colorado), and probably Joe Miller (Alaska).  Angle, Buck and Miller were all favored to win, albeit narrowly; O’Donnell’s Republican primary win was widely (and even initially) acknowledged as the reason Republicans didn’t win the Delaware seat, and Raese polled mostly behind in an extremely anti-Democratic election year in what is fast-becoming one of the most-Republican States in the country in Presidential politics.

Conclusion: Such an electoral performance definitely undermines the idea that the Tea Party is a movement that can mint its own viable candidates.  While the movement’s limited-government message has doubtlessly influenced the Republican Party it is rather doubtful that it will be able to coerce the Republican Congressional leadership.  Speaker-to-Be John Boehner is projected to preside over a 242-vote majority in the House of Representatives.  Considering 218 votes are needed to claim the Speaker’s gavel, Boehner only needs the fidelity of half of the Tea Party-branded freshman Representatives in order to lead the lower chamber of Congress anywhere he wants.  Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s comparatively-disappointing performance in this election (as Republicans picked up “only” 6 Senate seats in an election in which 11 were credibly polling within their reach–at least before the Delaware primary) is directly-attributable to the performance of 4 Tea Party candidates–O’Donnell, Angle, Buck, and (though not through any manifest fault the Liberal Ironist has heard of) Raese.  Continuing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s ranks will be padded by 2 Senators he visibly didn’t endorse–Rand Paul and Mike Lee–though his colleague Lisa Murkowski of Alaska seems to have beaten Palin’s preferred Miller through a write-in campaign.  Such a come-from-behind win is a strong statement, either for the power of positive thinking or the depth of many Alaskans’ discomfort with Joe Miller.

Further-undermining the prospect of a strong hand for the Tea Partiers in Congress is the diversity of the lessons they themselves have taken from this election.  For the “temperamental bookends” look to Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.  In his victory speech, Rand Paul’s message and even his delivery reflected the Tea Party’s self-image as a movement against professional politicians–but in a most-ungainly way.  He set himself up as the bearer of a message for his colleagues, which (considering he was initially opposed by the Republican establishment) is a good way for him to earn pariah status before even sitting with the rest of the Senate.  Rubio’s victory speech, by contrast, was solemn and circumspect.  He didn’t sound naive and he didn’t patronize his audience.  While his conservative mission was at least implicit in his speech, his tone was somber and indirect while he claimed that both parties were to blame for the voters’ current distrust of the Federal Government.  His comments were general, but his credentials and endorsements are well-known and he hasn’t boxed himself into a corner before the 112th Congress even meets.

The account of a Republican leadership that blithely and condescendingly says “Thank you, we’ll take it from here” to the champions of a nationwide (though very-partisan) populist uprising may sound like the very epitome of the sort of appropriation that breeds cynicism toward normal politics, but such a conclusion presupposes the sort of suspicion of normal politics that infects the Tea Party at its extreme.  At some point the movement simply has to become institutionalized if it is not to pass on.  Some Tea Party supporters talk of a permanent movement to militate for its governing philosophy, but such efforts sound like what a programmatic political party does already.  So, while Jonathan Rausch may be much-impressed with a (decentralized, cell-based) starfish’s capacity to survive, let’s not forget it is the (centralized, muscular) spider that can jump and bite and deliver the venom.

That may be a strange metaphor to use to suggest Speaker-to-be Boehner’s freedom to make deals in the 112th Congress, but there it is.  The Liberal Ironist will definitely have more to say about both the “Tea Party freshmen” and Speaker-to-Be Boehner.


5 thoughts on “The Tea Party’s Position in Congress: Weak, Actually

  1. Kukri

    These “Tea Party” candidates, what makes them “members” of the TP? Did they have to seek the support of this less-than-monolithic group, or were they simply declared TP favorites by local TP groups? TP sounds more like a brand or a shade of color, especially since every TP member who was elected is still officially on paper a Republican.

    You mention that “only 42 out of 130 (32%) of House Tea Party candidates won, while 5 out of 10 Senate Tea Party candidates won.” OK, and what about the Republicans who are conservative but didn’t identify with the TP, what’s their percentage? It’s very possible a number of Republicans could have decided to focus on their own Republican and/or conservative credentials first without going so far as adopting or accepting a Tea Party tag. The TP label might be a passing fad, but “conservative Republicans” are here to stay.

    Either way, the 112th now has to get their act together and pass some legislation if they want to avoid a do-nothing label.

    The NYT is already concerned that Palin’s minions will help set the stage for her for a 2012 run:

    1. liberalironist Post author

      There’s no denying that the 112th Congress will have a more-Conservative stamp than the 111th. The question I was asking was whether the “Tea Party”-branded candidates are numerous-enough and coherent-enough in their procedural philosophy to force Speaker Boehner to avoid compromises if he pursues policy achievements. My answer, of course is that they aren’t. The 112th Congress is more-conservative, but I doubt it will be controlled by its anti-political wing–or, at least, that will be up to Boehner.

  2. Leigh

    I have been a little too busy to follow closely but how exactly does the Republican leadership differ from the Tea Party policy-wise ? Both want to repeal or defund health care, both want to slash federal spending. Don’t Tea Partiers want to extend tax cuts for all ? Perhaps a blog about the philosophical and practical differences between the two is in order.

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    1. liberalironist Post author

      I think the term “liberal ironist” was coined by Richard Rorty in the book I cited in the “Liberal Ironist, What” section. That book is Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, and in it Rorty makes the case that the claims to scientific objectivity that Enlightenment philosophers tend to make for their moral and political philosophies are a poor means of justifying and defending their goal of making politics more just and humane, and contrived anyway.

      In the place of an appeal to a supposedly-“scientific” reading of human nature, Rorty promotes the humanities for their capacity to excite interest in people otherwise very different from us through compelling stories. While the book may be an abstract read for non-graduate students at times, I highly recommend it.


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