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JOHNSON: An obituary for the Tea Party

Groups may come and go, but the idea of limited government lives

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2014

The Tea Party, the popular political movement that grew from widespread public concern over the growth of government, died on Tuesday, June 24, in Mississippi.

During its short life, the Tea Party grew from a passionate patchwork quilt of grass-roots efforts to become an important and effective political force capable of altering elections and influencing national, state and local policies. It died a fractured, ineffective confederacy of discordant coteries that bore little resemblance to its original incarnation.

The modern Tea Party was born on Feb. 19, 2009, when CNBC business news editor Rick Santelli made an on-air plea for a modern-day version of the Boston Tea Party. Mr. Santelli claimed "government [was] promoting bad behavior" by passing out taxpayer-funded bailouts. He was concerned — correctly, as it turned out — that working Americans would end up on the hook for bad decisions and irresponsible policies.

Mr. Santelli's rant quickly went viral, prompting millions of Americans to participate in Tea Party rallies and join Tea Party groups in all 50 states to protest bailouts and the growth of the federal government.

In its early stages, the Tea Party's message of limited government, reduced federal spending and lower taxes proved to be broadly appealing. That should have come as little surprise, since polls indicate that upward of 75 percent of Americans think government is too big, too powerful and spends too much.

As a result, the Tea Party struck a chord. Since the movement's founding philosophy highlighted concerns shared by the majority of Americans, regardless of age, race, religion, income, education or sexual orientation, turnouts at early Tea Party rallies often reached into the tens, and even hundreds, of thousands, representing a broad cross-section of America.

For a time, it appeared possible that the Tea Party would redefine, or perhaps even replace, the Republican Party. Until, that is, the Tea Party contracted a series of illnesses and ailments, which ultimately led to its death.

First, a number of national Tea Party outfits sprouted in hopes of seizing on the movement's brand, supporters and lucrative fundraising potential for their own purposes. Several established national grass-roots activism and lobbying groups also began leeching onto the Tea Party, as well.

Ultimately, these organizations did more harm than good, creating fractures within the movement, using the Tea Party name to engage in policy battles unrelated to reducing the size of government and squandering millions of dollars that could have been used to elect candidates committed to the Tea Party's original mission.

The Tea Party was then hijacked and distorted by a number of self-interested politicians, perhaps most notably Sarah Palin, who tried in vain to marshal the movement's momentum to create a de facto fan club for herself.

With competing national organizations and marauding political figures hoping to capitalize on the might of the Tea Party to advance other causes dear to them, Tea Party activists became political pawns.

Before long, the Christian Right began to co-opt the Tea Party in order to advance its policy objectives. Injecting religion into the Tea Party was like allowing a stripper to pole dance in the middle of a dog show. Some people loved it. Some people were disgusted by it. It was distracting to everyone and, before long, people lost focus on the main event.

Soon afterwards, the Tea Party movement unraveled. Instead of remaining committed to their common ambition of reducing government spending and lowering taxes, the local groups that formed the core of the movement began to disperse their energy on a range of unrelated topics, ranging from protecting gun rights and traditional marriage to encouraging border protection and military involvement in Iran. The movement transformed from being one thing for all people to being all things for no one.

Rather than uniting an overwhelming majority of Americans based on the single principle of limiting the power of government, the Tea Party ultimately began dividing Americans by some activists' embrace of ludicrous conspiracy theories and beliefs that most Americans view as downright bigoted.

As a result, a movement that defended principles held by the overwhelming majority of Americans and that accurately boasted tens of millions of activists shrunk in size until its ranks could fit comfortably inside a 1974 Dodge Dart. The reduction in the size of the Tea Party was nothing compared to its loss of influence.

By the end, the movement was so impotent it was powerless to defeat big-government Republicans such as Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rep. Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. A surprise defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor appeared to stave of the Tea Party's death. Mr. Cantor's loss, however, turned out to be tied more strongly to voters thinking he had become out-of-touch with his district than any success of the Tea Party.

The Tea Party breathed its last breath last Tuesday after becoming so weak it could not defeat widely despised six-term incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, a big-spending Republican, in a GOP runoff. When it died, the Tea Party had lost its vision, become weakened by parasites and was plagued with various cancers that sapped its will to fight.

While the Tea Party may be dead, the fight for limited, responsible government lives on. After all, the Tea Party didn't die because Americans changed. It was the Tea Party that changed. More Americans today think that government is too big, too powerful and spends too much than in 2009.

It's for the best for those who loved and supported the Tea Party that it is no more. The splintered, unfocused movement it had become no longer effectively served to advance its original goals of reducing the size and scope of government. It is now time for another movement, a truer effort, to lead that important struggle.

The Tea Party is dead; long live the fight for limited government.

Drew Johnson is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.

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