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Tea Party Time: The Making of a Political Uprising

11 minute read
Michael Scherer

Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell may be partial to pearls and proper skirt suits, but she talks like the leader of a rebel army. “When the people fear the government, there is tyranny,” the newest Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate declared Tuesday night at a party to mark her victory over the nation’s entire Republican establishment. “When the government fears the people, there is liberty.”

(See portraits of the Tea Party movement.)

She attributed the line to Thomas Jefferson, an error that now adorns bumper stickers sold online for $2.99 a pop. In O’Donnell’s telling, Jefferson’s vision of the British monarch has been replaced by new threats: the Republican Party bosses in Wilmington and Washington and, most of all, the governing habits of President Obama. “We the people will have our voice heard in Washington once again,” O’Donnell declared.

Her words come straight from the political movement that elevated her to victory and shocked the political world — the diffuse collection of furies and frustrations that calls itself the Tea Party. It has no charter, no published manifesto and no governing council. Yet from Nevada’s high desert to Kentucky’s rolling coal hills, this movement has upended the elite of the Republican Party in 2010 and set its sights on remaking the U.S. Congress — and, in 2012, the presidency. “It’s more a cause than a campaign,” O’Donnell told her roaring supporters in an Elks lodge. “And the cause is restoring America.”

(See “Halperin’s Take: What O’Donnell’s Win Means.”)

The cause is also roiling America and the GOP. Not since Barry Goldwater thumbed his nose at country-club Republicans in 1964 has a rebel movement created such a crisis of legitimacy among the GOP establishment. And like that rebel movement, this one may spur an evolutionary change in the party that could last a generation. Back in April, when Florida’s once popular governor, Charlie Crist, bolted from the GOP in the face of a conservative revolt in his state, some dismissed it as an isolated event, a symptom of state fissures and candidate quirkiness. When Utah Senator Bob Bennett choked back tears after losing renomination at a state convention in May, few thought such insurrection would spread beyond any but the reddest states. Then the upsets turned from a tremor into an earthquake. In the Senate races alone, Tea Party candidates in Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Alaska, Kentucky, Delaware and Florida declared victory, sometimes over rivals handpicked by Republican leaders in Washington.

At a time of historic economic insecurity, the Tea Party movement has stolen the hearts of conservatives. It now has a chance to send as many as seven new Senators to Capitol Hill with their dreams of a radically smaller government, unfettered financial markets, defanged regulation and shrinking federal entitlements. Democrats have officially responded with celebration, citing polls that show that many of the newcomers’ policy views and personal histories hold little appeal among the broader public. “Republicans chose extremists instead of mainstream candidates as their nominees,” said Senator Bob Menendez, who is leading Democratic campaign efforts in the Senate, just hours after O’Donnell’s victory. “This has made a handful of states demonstrably more competitive.”

(See 10 races that have Democrats worried for 2010.)

But Democrats were spooked by what they were seeing even before the results in Delaware. Republicans have turned out in far greater numbers than Democrats in primaries this year, just as Democrats outvoted Republicans in 2008. What’s more, Democrats fear the throw-the-bums-out fervor that stunned Republican incumbents this summer may topple the mostly Democratic incumbents in the fall. Finally, it may be difficult for Obama to claim that a vote for the Republican Party represents a return to the past when the GOP is being so dramatically upended and overhauled. “The Administration’s ability to make that argument has been weakened by the very vociferous changes that have happened in the Republican Party,” says William Galston, a former adviser to Bill Clinton.

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The Backlash Against Elites
So far, the primary victories by Tea Party candidates like O’Donnell have exploited one of the biggest open secrets of American politics. The two major parties, for all their power to shape the national agenda, have seemed to care too much about retaining their power. Off-year primary elections tend to turn out just a fraction of the electorate, making establishment candidates vulnerable to even small popular movements.

In Delaware, O’Donnell defeated Mike Castle, a titan of state politics with a war chest of $2.6 million, more than 40 years of government service and statewide favorability ratings over 60%. Castle polled well ahead of Democrat Chris Coons even as O’Donnell polled far behind. Yet O’Donnell was able to win with just 30,000 voters at the polls, or about 3% of the state’s residents. It was the same in Alaska, where Joe Miller ousted Lisa Murkowski with little more than 55,000 votes, and in Nevada, where Sharron Angle won with just 70,000. These are not the sort of numbers that cause Democratic fainting spells, but they have proved heart-stopping for Republicans. “The GOP is very worried. It’s very hard to deal with the Tea Party movement,” explains James Thurber, head of American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “It’s like fighting guerrilla warfare with them.”

(See pictures of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.)

In the past, state and national parties have dealt with such insurrections by shifting their endorsements and donations to candidates who can win general elections. But like all other forms of authority — the press, the banks, the corporate leadership — the nation’s political leaders are embroiled in their own crises of legitimacy. The tools that were once useful in thwarting outsider candidates have become further expressions of rejected authority.

If anything, the new authorities in Republican politics are rebels such as Sarah Palin, Senator Jim DeMint and Representative Ron Paul, who define themselves as lonely agents of change fighting impossibly large institutional powers. Conservative media heroes Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have been careful not to embrace the GOP in any formal way. On a recent radio show, Limbaugh announced that he was replacing the Buckley Rule, which advised Republicans to vote for the conservative candidate with the best chance to win in a general election, with the Limbaugh Rule, which says vote for the person furthest to the right. The fact that William F. Buckley Jr. is no longer an icon for conservatives may be the clearest sign yet that the authorities of old have collapsed.

(Watch TIME’s video “A Tea Party on the Left Coast.”)

On the night of O’Donnell’s victory, former White House senior adviser Karl Rove appeared on Fox News, obviously annoyed that the wisdom of party elders about O’Donnell’s checkered personal financial history had been ignored. “It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude, truthfulness and sincerity and character the voters are looking for,” he said of O’Donnell, attempting to preach to the choir. The next morning on the same network, Palin demonstrated where the real power lies by dismissing Rove’s comments as the musings of “expert politicos.” “Bless his heart,” she said of Rove. “We love our friends there in the machine … I say, ‘Buck up.'”

Rove was himself an indirect beneficiary of the last great wave of popular revolt within the Republican Party, which more than anything else has provided the framework for the Tea Party. The Goldwater revolt of 1964 ended in a historic defeat against Lyndon Johnson. But while it appeared that LBJ’s overwhelming win left no survivors, Goldwater’s run planted the seeds of an ideological revival that revolutionized Republicanism — and American politics — for the next 40 years. The losing 1964 campaign led just two years later to the election of Ronald Reagan as governor of California, presaging his presidency and reinvigorating the College Republican organization that gave Rove and much of the current GOP leadership in Washington its start in politics.

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Can They Prevail?
so what are the long-term plans of the Tea Party rebellion? Attend a rally for Tea Party Senate candidates like Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Nevada’s Sharron Angle or Alaska’s Joe Miller and you might be surprised at just how much mainstream frustration they are channeling. At root, the Tea Party is the amen corner for those deeply worried about the size of the bailouts, the stimulus and the expansion of government-supported health care. Many see a way of life for themselves and their children slipping away while the nation’s leaders do nothing but make the problems worse. Many of the candidates also go much further, talking about repealing President Obama’s health care reform bill, eliminating the departments of Education and Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency and devolving those powers to the states. Candidates like Angle have said it is “hard to justify” Social Security and called for phasing out Medicare.

Congress has seen a sudden influx of no-compromise conservatives before. In 1994, 73 Republicans stormed into the House, many of them preaching anti-government themes that sound similar to those of today’s Tea Partyers. The Republicans of that year even proclaimed their victory a revolution that promised to change how Washington worked. It didn’t pan out that way. Even in the newly Republican-controlled Congress, votes on congressional term limits and a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution came up short. And when House Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, forced a federal-government shutdown in an effort to make President Bill Clinton accept their budget cuts, they badly lost the battle for public opinion. Indeed, the class of 1994 may have saved Clinton’s foundering presidency by allowing him to portray himself as a defender of the mainstream against their “radical” agenda.

(See TIME’s White House Photo Blog.)

As a result, many of the GOP newcomers adjusted their ambitions to the reality of the Capitol. “I don’t think we’ll have the same chutzpah that we had last time,” Representative Rick White of Washington told PBS after the 1996 elections. “We’re going to be a little bit more measured, a little bit more cautious, perhaps.” And so they were, working with Clinton on a deal to balance the budget.

It’s far too early to know if this new breed of conservative reformer will follow a different course. But the movement will certainly play a major role in the Republican race for the 2012 presidential nomination, which will effectively begin Nov. 3, 2010. “Many of these primary results serve as a reminder that crystallizing our party’s message to voters on reforming the status quo in Washington and reining in spending is vital in the current political environment,” said Kevin Madden, a top adviser to Mitt Romney. Romney has run afoul of some Tea Party activists for backing health care reform in Massachusetts, and he immediately endorsed O’Donnell after her victory.

The Republican leadership seems to be getting the message. On the night of O’Donnell’s win, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a terse, one-line statement from a staff employee congratulating O’Donnell for her nomination “after a hard-fought primary campaign.” At the same time, Republican operatives across Washington grieved to one another and reporters over O’Donnell’s victory, which put at risk a seat previously considered safe for Republicans this year.

(See pictures of 60 years of election night drama.)

But by daybreak it was clear that such a reaction was unsustainable. By faint-praising O’Donnell, party leaders were only playing into the hands of the populist revolt against the party and its leaders, just as Rove had done the night before. In the current environment, only outsiders have credibility. So Senator John Cornyn, the head of the committee that had once been working for O’Donnell’s opponent, changed course. “Let there be no mistake: the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and I personally as the committee’s chairman, strongly stand by all of our Republican nominees,” Cornyn said. And then he promptly shovelled O’Donnell $42,000 for her campaign. More is sure to come.

In other words, O’Donnell may have been right after all on election night. “We the people” are making their voices heard.

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