- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 21, 2018

When then-House Republican leader John A. Boehner appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2010, he delivered a deep embrace to the emerging tea party movement, declaring its budget-cutting, limited-government goals the heart of the party.

As CPAC gears up for its latest iteration, the tea party has been defeated on Capitol Hill, where Republicans and Democrats are competing to outbid each other on spending, and defanged on the campaign trail, where being a Trump candidate is far more important than winning tea party backing within Republican circles.

Indeed, Mr. Trump will be the dominant presence at the annual gathering of conservative grass-roots leaders, taking place just outside the Beltway in suburban Maryland.

The president will address the three-day conference Friday, and Vice President Mike Pence speaks Thursday.

CPAC also features panels such as “Trumponomics vs. Obamanomics,” “New Sheriff in Town: How Trump Is Taking Down Lawless Government Agencies” and “The Trump Effect on American Politics.”

But the tea party, which won CPAC’s Ronald Reagan award in 2010 and dominated the agenda in subsequent years, merits one brief mention on the schedule this week.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: CPAC 2021 - Latest news from the Conservative Political Action Conference

Dianne Belsom, of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina, said her group remains engaged on the local level but that the movement on the national level has lost momentum for a variety of reasons, including the “absolute lies and slander” that were spread about the movement to the IRS targeting of tea party groups.

“Some who were involved over the years literally gave up, have passed away or don’t see the situation in our country as dire now as it was under the Obama regime,” Mrs. Belsom said.

Many pollsters who used to regularly survey tea party support in the country have stopped even asking about it. Obamacare, meanwhile, is still the law of the land, and spending continues to grow.

The movement’s goals also suffered setbacks in recent weeks with the latest budget deal negotiated between Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and blessed by Mr. Trump.

That agreement scrapped the spending caps that were a key victory of the tea party era and boosted spending by nearly $300 billion over the next two years.

Despite the setbacks, Sal Russo, founder of the Tea Party Express, said it is clear that the movement has matured from a protest to a major player in national politics, where it has learned that it won’t get everything it wants from Washington.

But he also said Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who filibustered to protest the budget deal, forcing a short government shutdown, showed that there is life yet for the movement.

“I think he spoke for the tea party pretty much,” said Mr. Russo, adding that Mr. Trump is picking his battles. “I think a lot of people who voted for the spending bill agreed with Rand, but just like President Reagan in the 1980s, he had three main goals: put the Soviet Union and communism on its heels, and he succeeded with military buildup, and he got a pro-growth tax bill through, but he was not able to achieve his third goal, which was to reduce the deficit.”

Mr. Russo said Mr. Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, unwinding of Obama-era executive actions and $1.5 trillion tax rewrite are real victories for the tea party agenda.

Glen Bolger, a Republican Party pollster, said voters tend to identify as Trump voters rather than tea partyers now.

“It has to share a stage a little bit more,” Mr. Bolger said. “I think the main reason the migration has happened is that Donald Trump has filled a leadership vacuum.”

The tea party rose out of the frustration with mounting deficits and expanding government reach under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Republican candidates fought for tea party endorsements, and the media fought to give them air time. In 2011, CNN even delivered then-Rep. Michele Bachmann’s official “tea party response” to Mr. Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address live and teamed up with the Tea Party Express for a Republican presidential debate.

On Capitol Hill, the tea party caucus emerged, with Mrs. Bachmann as one of its leaders.

Over the years, CPAC evolved into one of the biggest showcases for the movement. The peak was in 2011, just months after the tea party helped Republicans retake control of the House in midterm elections.

The 2011 agenda featured panels such as “The Cultural Impact of the Tea Party,” “New Media and the Tea Party Movement,” and “It’s the Spending, Stupid! The Tea Party and the Political Landscape.”

John M. O’Hara, author of “A New American Tea Party: A Counterrevolution Against Bailouts, Handouts, Reckless Spending and More Taxes,” was a panelist on that last discussion. He told The Washington Times this week that the movement should not be counted out.

“While pro-growth wins like the recent federal tax cuts are certainly dampened by the recent massive budget, I think that the editorial eulogies for the tea party are premature — or at least imprecise,” Mr. O’Hara said. “While the movement in name may not be as robust as its early years, limited government advocates within and outside the Beltway always have and always will impact elections and public policy.”

Even as recently as 2016, the tea party was a force in national campaigns, with a half-dozen of the Republican presidential candidates flocking to the South Carolina Tea Party Coalition Convention, which attracted thousands of attendees and journalists from across the nation.

Joe Dugan, founder the convention, said there was a horrible turnout for event this year, which focused on the “deep state.” He said Facebook and Twitter stopped his invite from being circulated online as part of their efforts to censor conservative groups.

But he also said he has noticed the movement has less fervor than it once did.

“I think what has happened is a lot of the ideas that the tea party proposed and championed were picked up by President Trump, and I think that once President Trump was elected, I think the people in the tea party were tired,” Mr. Dugan said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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