Protesters opposes the arrival of buses carrying undocumented migrants for processing in California on July 4. House leaders have bowed to pressure from the tea party on immigration reform. (David McNew / Getty Images)
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A mid-March headline on National Journal’s website roared: “The Tea Party’s Over.” After then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss in his Virginia GOP primary, the Financial Times’ editorial board called it “the tea party’s triumphant return.”
At Bloomberg View, one piece made this conclusion of the tea party’s inability to replace Cantor on the House GOP leadership team with one of their own: the “tea party is still at the kids’ table.”
But did the tea party movement — and its ability to influence Republican leaders’ plans — go anywhere? To come “back,” it would have had to have gone somewhere. Did the tea party ever completely wrestle control from House Republican leaders to the point that a rough primary season would automatically mean it is “dead”?
Consider the message Salon’s Simon Maloy sent to tea party types after old-school Senate Appropriations Committee Ranking Member Thad Cochran rallied past a right-wing foe to win his GOP Mississippi primary: “Don’t despair, guys!”
“Sure, your candidates didn’t win, but overall you tea party types are doing a pretty good job at grinding government to a halt and getting incumbent Republicans to act like self-destructive, intransigent fools,” Maloy added.
Judging a political movement like the tea party through the lens of a single election outcome runs the risk of analyzing the faction’s true potency and impact through a soda straw.
It’s reminiscent of the ESPN approach to analysis: Describe every play, period and game as if it’s the most definitive moment ever (until the next one, of course), then breathlessly draw dramatic conclusions.
Bloomberg columnist Margaret Carlson, in her “kids’ table” piece, wrote of the tea party after Cantor’s shocking June 10 loss that “it hasn’t amassed the power to set the agenda.”
“Republicans will co-opt their renegade faction, so long as they don’t have to have them in the room when the door closes,” Carlson wrote. “A few more victories and the tea party will have to get a seat at the [leadership] table or break the table in two.”
Many declared California Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s ascension to majority leader a potential death knell for the tea party.
But consider what happened in the days after the establishment Republican’s promotion. House GOP leaders bowed to tea party wishes and drove a dagger into hopes for immigration-reform legislation, which could have meant billions in new sales for US arms makers. Before that, McCarthy jumped ship to the tea party side, joining the conservative group’s call to terminate the Import-Export Bank.
Those moves suggest the tea party is today what it was before an up-and-down primary season: a permanent force in Republican and American politics.
And that bodes ill for the defense sector. Why?
As one defense source with GOP ties put it: Electing more tea party candidates “means more people in Congress who just want to cut spending, including for defense. They just want to shut the government down. They don’t want to govern and they will not compromise.”
John T. Bennett is the senior congressional reporter for Defense News. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BennettJohnT.