Let’s be honest, the marriage between the Republican Party and the tea party has always been a marriage of convenience — and an uncomfortable marriage of convenience at best. Unfortunately, this marriage is no longer working and it is time for both sides to move on. Call it irreconcilable differences.
The split doesn’t have to be a contentious one. The two can part as friends: certainly plenty of establishment Republicans would be happy to be free of the tea party, free to go back to doing business the way they have always done business; and there are growing numbers inside the tea party movement who would be happy to see the movement reassert its political independence.
To be fair, this marriage had little chance of succeeding long-term from the very beginning. The tea party was as much a reaction to the big-government excesses of the Republican Party as it was a reaction to the big-government excesses of the Democratic Party.
Many in the tea party movement believed that the Republican Party could be changed, could be saved from its big-government ways. It was certainly fair to surmise that changing the Republican Party into a truly limited-government party would be easier than changing the party of FDR, LBJ and Barack Obama.
Most of the Republican and conservative establishment has been leery of the tea party from the very beginning. Indeed, many within the Republican and conservative establishments were openly critical of the tea party. Social conservatives like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and current presidential candidate and former senator Rick Santorum all bemoaned the tea party’s lack of focus on social issues and the tea party movement’s libertarian streak.
Moderate talking heads like David Brooks and David Frum, along with their ideological soul mates on the Hill, attacked the tea party as “radical” and ridiculed tea party activists as politically naïve.
Both the moderate and the conservative establishment types feared that the dirty, unwashed masses of the tea party might actually change how things are done in Washington — leaving them and their K Street buddies out of power and out of work.
Of course, once it became clear that the tea party was going to be a force — actually the force — in the 2010 midterms, Republicans of all stripes suddenly had a change of heart. The tea party became the proverbial prettiest girl at the political dance, and the Republican Party was all for a quickie Vegas wedding.
Unfortunately, like most quickie Vegas weddings, the marriage between the GOP and the tea party simply hasn’t worked out: certainly not for the tea party.
The tea party brand, a brand that was once popular among average Americans, has suffered under the politically poisonous weight of being seen as little more than an appendage of the GOP. Part of what made the tea party so popular to begin with was that it was not seen as a wholly owned subsidiary of either of the failed political parties. Indeed, surveys showed that up to 40% of tea party members didn’t describe themselves as Republicans.
Now, unfortunately, the tea party is seen as just another Republican Party interest group. Another interest group to be used for fundraising and to turn out votes on Election Day, and then to be ignored when the politicians get back to doing the work of Washington.