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Will the Tea Party abandon politics?
With the moderate Mitt Romney the GOP's likely nominee, a frustrated and fed-up Tea Party might just give up on politics altogether
 
David Frum
David Frum

Remember the Tea Party? It used to be a very big deal in this country. Yet here we are, weeks away from January Republican primaries that are likely to be decisive, and one by one the Tea Party candidates for president have fallen away.

Sarah Palin: Bowed out.

Michele Bachmann: Campaign imploded.

Donald Trump: Remember him?

Ron Paul: Too odd for prime time.

Newt Gingrich: Dead on arrival.

Tim Pawlenty: Miscast in the role.

Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour: All declined the part.

Herman Cain: At minute 13 of his 15 minutes of fame.

And the messiah who was supposed to turn things around, Rick Perry? The hot air is seeping out of that particular balloon hour by hour.

The astounding result: After three years of battling against ObamaCare, the most likely winner of the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is the author of the Massachusetts health care plan that inspired ObamaCare's basic mechanism.

It's as if the Democrats of the 1960s had responded to the anti-war protests by nominating Robert McNamara for president.

It's as if the Democrats of the 1960s had responded to the anti-war protests by nominating Robert McNamara for president.

So what happens now? Does the Tea Party fall into line behind Mitt Romney? Does it support a protest against him, like the Ralph Nader protest candidacy that blighted Al Gore's hopes in 2000? Does it turn away from national organizing to focus its energy down-ballot, on the control of local parties? Or does it demobilize and fade out of politics altogether? After the crushing defeat of George McGovern in 1972, many on the radical Left gave up on politics, shifting their interests to spirituality, psychology, and sexuality. Could something similar happen on the Right?

You have to figure Option 1 — fall into line behind Romney — is the most likely.

Fox News will fall into line for sure. Cut off from the television network that is so important to conservative activism, how would a Tea Party mutiny organize itself? Besides, a mutiny requires leadership, and if the Tea Party had credible leadership to offer, it would not be in its present difficulty in the first place.

The second option — go down ballot — is the one pursued by conservative activists after the Goldwater debacle of 1964. It might seem a plausible plan today, except for the risk that it leaves conservatives controlling more and more of less and less. The Tea Party can take control of the Delaware GOP. That's a very different thing from winning an election in Delaware. As the Republican Party becomes more a Tea Party, it will spread the negative reaction to Tea Party Republicanism wider and wider — to governors' races, to mayors' races, to sheriffs' races.

As for Option 3 — back a protest candidate — well, there's always Sarah Palin. She's still got a following of about 10 percent of the GOP, enough to cause serious trouble. She probably can raise sufficient money to sustain a guerrilla operation. She hates to feel the spotlight shifting away from her, and she is not one to worry about the real-world, practical effects of her decisions — including siphoning off enough votes from Romney to re-elect Barack Obama. And at least some radio hosts, including Rush Limbaugh, might well see re-electing Obama as a better outcome than electing Romney. Obama has certainly been a blessing for the ratings and bottom lines of the talk radio industry. Option 3, although tough, cannot be excluded.

The final option — give up on politics altogether — seems the most remote contingency. And yet… consider this.

The phrase you most often hear from Tea Party activists is, "we are losing our country." And you know what? They have a point. A Tea Party activist in her early 60s grew up in an America run by and for its middle class. As compared with that country, the America of the 2010s is much more dominated by the ultrarich, and is home to many more very poor. People at the middle have seen their incomes stagnate and then decline. They have seen immigration change the ethnic balance of the country, push the old white majority into minority status in many parts of the country, and fill the nation with a new class of poor. People in the middle have seen government act to save the banks that wrote bad mortgages — and then shrug off the borrowers ruined by those same toxic loans. The Tea Party offered a story about the disaster, and an array of villains to blame, headed by the egghead president with the foreign name.

But if the Tea Party goes nowhere, and if the country continues to change in ways experienced as hostile and threatening by older, white, middle-class people — might they possibly give up altogether? Instead of the old pessimism of "you can't fight City Hall," could we see the spread of a new pessimism, "you can't fight Goldman Sachs"? 

 

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