Amid Declining Popularity, The Tea Party Prepares To Fight

Dec 24, 2013
Originally published on December 24, 2013 6:02 pm

It's easy to forget that the tea party movement is still less than 5 years old. Its successes include the 2010 midterm elections, when it helped the GOP win back the U.S. House.

It was once again a noisy and resurgent player in American politics in 2013. But that doesn't mean it was a year of victories: The movement's campaign to repeal Obamacare failed, and public approval hit near-record lows after the tea party forced a partial government shutdown. Even tea party events aren't as large as they once were.

Even so, the movement had a great influence on both the debate and on the direction of the Republican Party this year. It was a demonstration of the movement's resilience and determination.

"You know, there are some people who want to write the obituary for the tea party, but if you look around to this crowd on a Wednesday afternoon, the tea party is alive and well," said Mike Needham at a rally in June outside the U.S. Capitol. Needham is with Heritage Action for America — one of the big outside groups that poured cash into supporting tea party candidates. "And we are going to write the obituary for big government."

This was a year that saw the emergence of some big national stars of the movement: players who weren't just media personalities, like Glenn Beck, but who actually held high office, like Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.

Paul's 13-hour filibuster in March against John Brennan's CIA nomination protested what he says is the threat posed by a state ready to violate individual rights in the name of national security. His popularity among tea party activists soared.

But the biggest fight the tea party waged this year was a failed standoff to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Enter GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who launched a marathon speech in the Senate in September as a deadline to fund the federal government was fast approaching.

"I intend to speak in opposition to Obamacare," he said. "I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand."

Cruz's position: To block any government spending bill that contained money to fund Obamacare. That became the focal point of debate. It tied the hands of the GOP leadership looking for a deal. It made compromise impossible. A partial government shutdown lasting 16 days ensued in October.

Tea party activists around the country urged their congressional allies to stand firm. It was a moment of strength for the movement – which, at the very same time, demonstrated how out of touch it was with public opinion.

A CBS News poll in October, found that 72 percent of Americans thought the dispute over Obamacare should not have led to the shutdown. Forty-four percent blamed congressional Republicans, while 35 percent blamed President Obama.

A Gallup poll out this month shows that just 22 percent of those questioned call themselves tea party supporters – a near-record low. Establishment forces like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began to directly take on the tea party. Even the mainstream GOP began to resist: An end-of-year news conference by House Speaker John Boehner demonstrated that some Republican leaders are ready to push back — hard.

"They pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government," he said. "Most of you know, my members know, that wasn't exactly the strategy that I had in mind. But if you'll recall, the day before the government reopened, one of these groups stood up and said, 'Well, we never really thought it would work.' Are you kidding me?"

It does seem that the tea party is much at war with Republicans as it is with Democrats. The movement rejected a GOP effort to rebrand itself after the 2012 election and helped derail action on a new immigration law.

But in the coming year of midterm elections, tea party candidates are challenging many incumbent Republicans in the House and Senate in primary races. Such battles could define both the shape and future of the GOP.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. We're going to stock now of the year just past and the year ahead in American politics. And we'll begin with the fortunes of the Tea Party. The movement made a noisy resurgence in 2013, but it was not a year of victories. There was the failed campaign to repeal Obamacare and public approval hit all-time lows after the Tea Party forced a partial government shutdown.

Nevertheless, the movement had a great deal of influence on national debate and on the direction of the Republican Party. Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It's easy to forget that the Tea Party movement is still less than 5 years old. Its successes include the 2010 midterm elections, when it helped the GOP win back the U.S. House. As for lows, there's the reelection of President Obama and the survival of the Affordable Care Act. Tea Party events aren't as large as they once were, either, but 2013 was a demonstration of the movement's resilience and determination.

MIKE NEEDHAM: You know, there are some people who want to write the obituary for the Tea Party, but if you look around at this crowd on a Wednesday afternoon, the Tea Party is alive and well, and we are going to write the obituary for big government.

GONYEA: That's from June, outside the U.S. Capitol. Mike Needham is with Heritage Action for America, one of the big outside groups that poured cash into supporting Tea Party candidates. This was a year that saw the emergence of some big national stars of the movement, players who weren't just media personalities, like Glenn Beck, but who actually held high office, like U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: I rise today to begin to filibuster John Brennan's nomination for the CIA. I will speak until I can no longer speak. I will...

GONYEA: Senator Paul's 13-hour filibuster in March protested what he says is the threat posed by a state ready to violate individual rights in the name of national security. His popularity among Tea Party activists soared. But the biggest fight the Tea Party waged this year was a failed standoff to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Enter Ted Cruz of Texas, who launched a marathon speech in the Senate in September, as the deadline to fund the federal government was fast approaching.

SENATOR TED CRUZ: Madam President, I intend to speak in opposition to Obamacare. I intend to speak in support of defunding Obamacare until I am no longer able to stand.

GONYEA: Cruz's position, to block any government spending bill that contained money to fund Obamacare. That became the focal point of the debate. It tied the hands of the GOP leadership looking for a deal. It made compromise impossible. A partial government shutdown lasting 16 days ensued.

Tea Party activists around the country urged their congressional allies to stand firm. It was a moment of strength for the movement, which, at the very same time, demonstrated how out of touch it was with public opinion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWSCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: According to the CBS News poll out this morning, 72 percent of Americans think the dispute over Obamacare should not have led to the shutdown.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The poll finds 44 percent blamed congressional Republicans for the impasse, 35 percent blame President Obama.

GONYEA: And a new Gallup poll out this month shows that just 22 percent of those questioned call themselves Tea Party supporters. Establishment forces like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce began to directly take on the Tea Party. Additionally, an end-of-year news conference by Speaker of the House John Boehner demonstrated that some GOP leaders are ready to push back hard.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: They pushed us into this fight to defund Obamacare and to shut down the government. Most of you know, my members know, that wasn't exactly the strategy that I had in mind. But if you'll recall, the day before the government reopened, one of these groups stood up and said, well, we never really thought it would work. Are you kidding me?

GONYEA: It does seem that the Tea Party is as much at war with Republicans as it is with Democrats. The movement rejected a GOP effort to rebrand itself after the 2012 election and helped derail action on a new immigration law. And in the coming year of midterm elections, Tea Party candidates are challenging many incumbent Republicans in the House and especially in the U.S. Senate in primary races. Such battles could define both the shape and future of the GOP. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.