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Tea Party Pointing Fingers at GOP Leadership, 5 Years In

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Rick Santelli rant heard ’round the world five years ago is credited with starting the tea party, and if you ask Republicans in Congress, the conservative movement has a mixed legacy.  

“There’s a reality that we have a president that is further left than any president we’ve ever had in history, and there’s a reality that Harry Reid is a compliant, willing accomplice of the president to accomplish his agenda,” Rep. Michele Bachmann told CQ Roll Call. “So knowing that, I think the tea party is doing as well as it can.”  

The Minnesota Republican founded and is still serving as chairwoman of Congress’ Tea Party Caucus, but she is calling it quits this year instead of seeking re-election.  

Bachmann identified the 2010 election as “clearly” the “high-water mark” for the movement: “The tea party was responsible for removing the gavel from Nancy Pelosi’s hands and putting it in John Boehner’s hand and making him speaker. That effectively put the brakes on the Obama agenda in a very forthright way.”  

But five years in, the political movement is not easy to evaluate. Among the sentiments we heard from Republican lawmakers as we assessed the tea party over the past week were that it’s been successful, that it’s pushed legislative change on spending issues, that it’s still experiencing growing pains, and even that it’s “dangerous.”  

There’s not much of a central organization inside the Congress. (Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus website hasn’t been updated since June.) Newer lawmakers, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have taken over much of the tea party spotlight .  

Still, many of the tea party’s goals have been thwarted — Obamacare still stands largely untouched and the president is moving forward with a vast regulatory agenda. But the one area where the tea party’s impact has been lasting and deep is in reversing the stimulus spending policies of the president and enacting the deepest discretionary spending cuts in memory.  

“The tea party’s legacy is to really expose the spending that’s out of control in Washington,” said RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana.  

“We were elected as a restraining order,” said Michael C. Burgess of Texas.  

And they gave Republicans what may be an enduring House majority.  

For Billy Long of Missouri, who rode the tea party wave to Congress in 2010, the movement was a motivator. The tea party “got people up off the couch and got ’em out to vote,” he said.  

Another hallmark of the tea party has been a bold challenge to the establishment, and even GOP leaders under the Dome.  

“Folks say it was about Obama. It was in part,” said Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. “But it’s about Republicans not living up to what they claim to believe in.”  

He argues that a debt ceiling increase without “a single dime’s worth” of spending cuts “is exactly why the tea party says we need new blood in the Republican Party.”  

“Washington is still out of touch,” Huelskamp said. “Taxes are still too high. We spend too much money. And the right question is: What has the Republican majority done? I think the tea party would say, ‘Not enough.’”  

The Tea Party Patriots have started a petition to fire Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio. It has 88,888 signatures.  

A number of tea party Republicans — Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, Justin Amash of Michigan, Thomas Massie of Kentucky — pushed Boehner to put a clean debt ceiling increase on the floor and let Democrats pass it. And Boehner largely blamed those GOP members who would not consider voting for any proposal raising the debt limit as his weakness in negotiating. Huelskamp defended his conservative allies.  

“What they were saying is the Republican leadership is too weak. And they’ve shown us they’re not willing to fight,” he said. “That’s why we need to go through another election cycle.  

“At the end of the day, problems are not getting done; they’re getting worse,” Huelskamp said. “For most tea party folks, they’re tired of the talks, they’re tired of the rhetoric, show us what you’ve done. Show us that you’re taking on this president.  

“People say, ‘Hey, we did everything we could.’ Well wait a minute, no you didn’t,” Huelskamp said. “If you look at what our leadership has done, why folks are frustrated with them is they have not done everything they can.”  

Michael Steel, spokesman for Boehner, had only positive things to say about the tea party’s impact.  

“Virtually every Republican elected in 2010 and 2012 was proud to have the support of tea party activists, including Speaker Boehner,” he said. “Their energy and dedication have made a huge, positive difference for America.”  

But some Republicans said the tea party and its never-ending search for political purity also posed an electoral danger to the Republican party.  

“Great, so you can win a primary. What does that mean?” asked Michael G. Grimm, a moderate Republican from New York who recently left the Republican Study Committee. “All it means, in many instances, is that you’re guaranteeing the Democrat wins. So this ideology of ‘We have to have the most conservative person win a race’ is dangerous for the Republican party. Because the person has to be the most electable person. That’s what should matter.”  

Inflammatory rhetoric that sometimes comes from the tea party can “de-legitimize our own argument, because now it’s about how outrageous what was said [is] instead of the substance of what was said.  

“Then it becomes a circus and it’s not substantive,” he said.  

Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin acknowledged to CQ Roll Call that with so many activists new to politics, there was a “learning curve” for the tea party over its first five years: “We’re learning how to maneuver the system with the leverage that we have,” she said. “We understand so much more now about what happens inside of Washington, D.C.”

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