Following President Obama’s election in 2008, Republicans and conservative activists vowed to take back some control of government and the Tea Party was born. The “Tea” in Tea Party loosely stood for “taxed enough already,” but the burgeoning faction within the GOP stood, basically, for smaller government, lower taxes and opposition to the expanding welfare state. Some of the specific concerns included bailouts of bad mortgages under the housing market collapse, the $787 billion stimulus package by President Obama and general unrest among conservatives that hard-work was being replaced with government handouts.
Some of you may remember this rant by CNBC host Rick Santelli, from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in February 2009, which seemed to capture and ignite the Tea Party movement:
Conservative media outlets quickley grasped onto Santelli’s rant, with National Review writing at the time:
I think people are hungry for someone who is fed up with the way things are and who seem to believe in something enough to know there in an alternative worth fighting for. Some of the voices may be far from perfect, but Americans are looking for signs of the life of an alternative. And so if a representative pops up — someone who appears to have roots and energy, folks will cheer them on in the hopes there’s a candidate here. Maybe not a presidential candidate, but a leader of some sort. Someone who can offer a vision of something other than a culture of bailout.
Today, Rick Santelli was that sign of life.
Later in 2009, the first victories of the movement were felt with Republican Bob McDonnell winning the Governorship in purple Virginia, and Republican Chris Christie doing the same in deep-blue New Jersey. What followed was a year of rallies, protests and organizing of like-minded conservatives who felt the federal government was growing too bloated and would end up raising taxes and increasing regulations, crushing small businesses and the American dream in the process.
Owing their motivation to this rising movement, many non-politicians decided it was time to try their hand at government. The midterm election of 2010 was a watershed moment when the GOP took control of the House and added 87 new elected Republican Congressmen. At the time, President Obama was quoted as saying his party took a “shellacking.”
Since the wave of 2010, the Tea Party had mixed results in Congress running basically one-half of one-third of the federal government. Speaker John Boehner did his best to unify the GOP in opposition to President Obama, but the showdowns and negotiations usually ended with GOP embarrassment over government shutdowns or accusations from Democrats that the Tea Party was engaged in “hostage taking.”
As ABC News now reports, the Tea Party class of 2010 has all-but dissolved within the GOP and a handful have been absorbed into the Trump administration:
Eight years later, the House Tea Party Caucus is long gone. So, too, are almost half the 87 new House Republicans elected in the biggest GOP wave since the 1920s.
Some, including current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, joined the executive branch. Others slipped back to private life. Several are senators.
Now, with control of the House again at stake this fall and just three dozen of them seeking re-election, the tea party revolt shows the limits of riding a campaign wave into the reality of governing.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., who was president of that freshman class, objects to the tea party brand that he says was slapped on the group by the media and the Obama administration. It’s a label some lawmakers now would rather forget.
“We weren’t who you all said we were,” Scott said.
He prefers to call it the class of “small-business owners” or those who wanted to “stop the growth of the federal government.” Despite all those yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and anti-Obama health law rallies, Scott said the new Republican lawmakers wanted to work with the president, if only Obama would have engaged them. “We didn’t come to take over the country,” he said.
Yet change Washington they did, with a hard-charging, often unruly governing style that bucked convention, toppled GOP leaders and in many ways set the stage for the rise of Donald Trump.
In practice, the Tea Party basically stood in opposition to President Obama and lacked the ability to actually move any conservative agenda items forward. This scenario led to countless “showdowns” with the President over budgets, taxes, and, of course, health care. By the time this new wave of GOP Congressmen took the House, ObamaCare was already law of the land having been passed in early 2010. It’s arguable that the health care vote certainly helped to drive GOP voter enthusiasm as an effort to repeal the law. However, as it was soon discovered, even a raucously large House majority cannot single-handily overturn legislation with a Democrat-controlled Senate and White House.
The Tea Party’s legacy, in my humble opinion, will reside with the thousands of activists who were previously non-political, but decided to get off the sidelines when they saw a growing federal government and the possibility of a government-run health care system in the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare. This also set off a winning streak for Republicans in state government where numerous state legislatures changed hands and Republican gained super majorities around the country as states took up the mantle of fighting President Obama, much like Democratic blue states fight President Trump today.
Several Tea Party organizations, such as the Tea Party Patriots, are still very active in elections up and down the line and hope to continue influencing the system for years to come:
Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, says every movement “goes through phases.” As the group looks to elect the next “Tea Party 100” members of the House, it’s seeking “tested and proven” candidates beyond the “citizen legislators” who powered the early days.
However, as Senator Tim Scott warns, there must be substance behind the promises or voters grow weary:
Another 2010 leader, South Carolina’s Tim Scott, now a senator, says he has no problem with the tea party label that’s now etched in history.
But he reminds his colleagues as they campaign that to keep the majority they must also eventually govern and that “promises made should be promises kept.”
Democrats are hoping that 2018 turns into their 2010, a historic election where scores of new Democrats help regain the House and create a firewall against President Trump passing anything of substance. We’re all on the front row of history to watch it unfold on the most fascinating stage known as American democracy.