August 2009 was the month of the Tea Party town hall.
We were just eight months into the Obama presidency, and Democratic congressmen headed home for recess only to get ambushed by mobs chanting their opposition to ObamaCare. As The New York Times reported at the time, "members of Congress have been shouted down, hanged in effigy, and taunted by crowds." The August 2009 town halls certainly created obstacles on the road to health care reform, and in many ways, gave birth to the national Tea Party movement.
Now here we are in August 2013, when some observers thought that Tea Party groups would actually derail the tenuous legislative push for immigration reform. The anti-immigration group NumbersUSA is certainly trying, posting "Town Hall Talking Points" along with lists of congressional events at which to reel them off.
But midway through August, the Tea Party is barely a blip on the national radar. What happened?
1. The anti-immigration Tea Party crowd is being out-crazied
Despite the heroic efforts of Rep. Steve "Cantaloupe Calves" King, the anti-immigration faction of the Tea Party is being crowded out by voices even farther out on the fringe.
The news out of the town halls has featured Oklahoma's "Birther Princess" and a Republican congressman casually musing about impeachment. Outside of the town halls, Republicans are publicly feuding with each other over whether to agitate for a government shutdown and conservative talk radio hosts are expending their energies defending the wisdom of turning a Missouri rodeo into a minstrel show.
The right wing's summer cacophony is muffling the noise of the anti-immigration forces, as well as deepening the Republican image problem among moderates and people of color.
2. The Republican leadership wants no part of Tea Party agitation
For all we know, the Tea Party fizzle may be exactly what the Republican leadership wants. According to Politico, "House Republican leaders have spoken about immigration only when asked during the August recess." That suggests Speaker John Boehner and his allies are looking to lower the temperature, creating a climate that eventually will allow compromise to win the day.
But it's not just the formal Republican leadership that is refusing to join the anti-immigration crusade. Tea Party favorites like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz haven't been leading the anti-immigration parade either, despite their opposition to the bipartisan Senate bill. The Daily Caller's Mickey Kaus lashed out, saying, "If Amnesty Wins, Blame Cruz," as Cruz is siphoning off conservative grassroots energy for his fight against ObamaCare.
The best NumbersUSA could book for its Stop Amnesty tour is Rep. King. A recent rally led by King, held in the congressional district of the second-highest ranking House Republican, attracted a mere 60 people. Meanwhile 1,500 pro-immigration-reform activists held a Wednesday rally in the heavily Latino congressional district of the third-highest ranking House Republican.
3. Republican money is on the other side
The 2009 town hall outbursts were nationally organized in part by conservative groups FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, which were funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
The louder the fringe voices become, the stronger the case mainstream Republicans can make to their leaders to accept immigration reform, on
the grounds that the party can't survive if it remains associated with birthers and bigots. At the same time, since the Tea Party can't get the conservative grassroots riled up now, they won't have much of a case to make to incumbent congressmen that they will face fierce primary challenges next year if they agree to a compromise with Democrats.
Score August as a big win for immigration reform.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The Obama era is over. The presidency continues.
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- America created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Meet the ISIS 'truthers'
- How Harry Houdini escaped death
- How American businessmen are ruining American business — and the U.S. economy
- What is Molly? Everything you need to know about the party drug
- On ISIS, neocons and liberal hawks have a 'boy who cried wolf' problem
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Russia's giant spy ship was a high-tech disaster waiting to happen
Subscribe to the Week