In the first and signal victory speech of election night, Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul took to the podium and declared himself the leading edge of a "Tea Party tidal wave." That wave, Paul made clear, is poised to crash down on the very idea of government itself. In his compact, loaded address, Paul pilloried government on at least ten occasions while zipping through the Tea Party’s trigger words: Constitution, individual liberty, freedom, entrepreneurship, capitalism, balanced budgets and an end to the slavery of debt. But there was one word conspicuously missing from his remarks: "Republican."
On a night when Republicans pulled off the largest shift in party power since 1938, converting at least sixty seats in the House, they also seemed, paradoxically, to be an endangered species. In absurd remarks coming from a ten-term incumbent, incoming House speaker John Boehner pointedly declined to acknowledge this elephant in the room, pledging instead to take "a new approach that hasn’t been tried before in Washington—by either party." And when the R-word was uttered, it was usually in a bizarre ritual of self-flagellation. As victorious Florida Tea Partyer Marco Rubio bluntly declared, it would be "a grave mistake" to believe that "these results are somehow an embrace of the Republican Party."
If the GOP didn’t win—according to the GOP—then just who the hell did? The expedient answer for a party that still can’t shake off the stink of George W. Bush’s crony capitalism and profligate wars is the Tea Party. As a branding technique, it allows the right to sell a narrative of rediscovered conservatism, a story of how a movement of libertarian true believers got lost in the corridors of Halliburton and the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq but found their way again thanks to an uprising of "the people" awakened by Obama’s government takeover. A lot of inconvenient truths and players get dropped along the way (pro-war security hawks; Astroturf-seeding billionaires; the Christian right, whose definition of individual liberty doesn’t extend to women and gays; Bush’s Wall Street bailout), but obviously historical and factual integrity isn’t really the point. It makes a good slogan, and along the way it ups the rhetorical ante. Reagan’s small-government revolution now sounds like a full-fledged no-government revolt; not since the British Redcoats has an army come to Washington with so explicit an intent to burn it to the ground.
Underneath the "Tea Party Triumphs" headlines, however, lies a fractured, incoherent party whose short-term strategy for electoral success is every bit as dicey as the formula for New Coke. Paul’s, Rubio’s and Pat Toomey’s wins were more than offset by defeats for Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle, John Raese, Ken Buck and, most likely, Joe Miller. Likewise in the House, Tea Party candidates picked up victories in Arizona, Arkansas and Florida, but in Pennsylvania, a hotbed of local Tea Party activism, they went 0 for 2 in races in play while non–Tea Party Republicans went a perfect 5 for 5. Although you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, ordinary Republicans constitute the majority of the new GOP class. Moreover, a number of successful candidates are only nominally or opportunistically associated with the Tea Party; these TINOs (Tea in Name Only) include Ron Johnson, who knocked off Russ Feingold in Wisconsin but whose success was largely driven by his personal wealth, and Steve Chabot of Ohio, who rebranded himself early on as a Tea Partyer in order to reclaim a seat he first won in 1994.
So far, the Tea Party zealots haven’t forced most of these TINOs and non-Tea Republicans to take the purity test, as they did with Mike Castle in Delaware, to disastrous effect. But if firebrands like Paul and Rubio get their way in crafting legislation, all bets are off. Ask newly elected moderate Republican Nan Hayworth of New York’s 19th District how she feels about privatizing Social Security or eliminating the Department of Education. Then ask Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe how they feel about their new colleague Toomey, who thinks it’s cool to jail doctors for performing abortions. The possibilities for wedge issues that highlight the antigovernment extremism of the Tea Party (as well as its religious right tendencies) are ample, and Democrats should have no qualms about exploiting them—if the Tea Party doesn’t go there on its own.
But there’s a bigger lesson for Democrats than just divide and conquer. As much as the Tea Party’s "throw the bums out" mentality represents a scary, anti-intellectual nihilism—there’s an undeniably refreshing zing to its claim that Washington needs new faces. Sure, there’s tons of hypocrisy and insincerity when folks like Boehner mouth these anti-establishment lines. But at least he had the smarts to ape the mood and in some cases actually accommodate it. The Republican Party wrestled this past year—often bloodily and clumsily (just ask Lisa M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I)—to co-opt, absorb and redirect the new energy on their side. This intraparty fight resulted in considerable blowback, though on the whole it produced not just net gains in Congress but the perception (and sometimes reality) that the Republicans were the party most willing to create a place at the table for outsiders. Meanwhile, Democrats, who just two years ago put a greenhorn at the top of the ticket, doubled down this time on the familiar—rallying around Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas (who subsequently went down to a 20-point defeat) and funneling late money to Blue Dogs (who dropped from fifty-four to twenty-six members). For the better part of Obama’s administration, staffers like Rahm Emanuel and Robert Gibbs were busy tossing off insults and elbows to the few insurgents on the left. And look where that got us.