Ever since a wave of conservative insurgents arrived in Washington after the congressional election of 2010, Congress has careened from one tea party-inspired fiscal crisis to another, from the debt-ceiling showdown of 2011 to last year’s 16-day government shutdown.
But last week, when the debt ceiling needed to be raised again, conservative Republicans decided not to fight. They still voted no, but they meekly stood aside to let the ceiling rise.
“You’ve got to know when to hold them and when to fold them,” Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who once reigned as chair of the House Tea Party Caucus, explained to the Washington Post. “Now is not the time to fight.”
Could it be that the tea party is growing up?
To some tea party militants around the country, Bachmann’s words sounded like surrender. But the Minnesota congresswoman and her colleagues on Capitol Hill were simply embracing lessons learned from October’s disruptive government shutdown.
Back then, tea party conservatives expected the American public to rally behind their demand to defund President Obama’s healthcare plan — but the public didn’t rally. Instead, voters turned against the GOP for staging a needless crisis, driving the party’s popularity to record lows.
From that experience, the tea partiers learned some crucial lessons. The first was: Don’t stage a crisis without a plan to win something from it.
The demands made by congressional conservatives in the fall were nonstarters, given a Democratic Senate and a president with veto power. The only thing they could offer was obstruction, and Americans didn’t like that. And that brought the tea party to lesson No. 2: Branding yourself as “the Party of No” only gets you so far.
A third lesson came from the calamitous rollout of President Obama’s healthcare plan, which rescued the GOP from its slump. With that, conservatives in Congress learned that if you think your opponent’s signature project is a train wreck, the best thing to do is get out of the way and let the voters watch it crash.
Now we’re starting to see the tea party apply the lessons learned.
Last week, for example, Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, staged a conference to showcase the insurgents’ work: a wonkfest that included plans for healthcare, welfare reform and even deregulating college accreditation. Most of the ideas weren’t very new; the novelty, instead, was the focus on the nuts and bolts of changing federal policy instead of red-meat rhetoric about defunding the government.
“We can’t just be against President Obama’s agenda,” Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said. “We must stand for something.”
Tea party conservatives have also been working to forge deeper institutional ties. The movement may have begun as a grass-roots collection of activists in funny hats, but as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson of Harvard University have pointed out, it has become powerful by linking those activists to established fundraising organizations such as Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and an old-line conservative think tank, Heritage.
None of this means that the civil war in the GOP is over, just that a smarter tea party may be less inclined to sabotage itself. Almost 90% of John Boehner’s House Republicans voted against the speaker on the debt ceiling, but they didn’t make a scene while doing it.
Tea party-backed candidates are expected to challenge incumbent Republican senators in six states (Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas). At this point, none of the challengers appears to have caught fire, but in both 2010 and 2012, the GOP establishment was shocked by more than one insurgent from the right wing who suddenly dethroned a veteran. (It was also shocked by several insurgents who turned out to be terrible candidates; the party’s working harder to weed those out this year.)
And no matter how the primaries turn out, the tea party has held onto its standing as the biggest faction in the Republican Party. An ABC-Washington Post poll last month found that 63% of Republican voters said they support the tea party, down from 72% last year but still an impressive number.
“The tea party was supposed to be dead and the GOP on the way to moderate repositioning after Obama’s victory and Democratic congressional gains in November 2012,” Skocpol wrote in the journal Democracy. "[But] the tea party’s hold on the GOP persists beyond each burial ceremony.”
One reason for that is that the tea party’s congressional wing, at least, has acquired one of the most important qualities of any durable political movement: the ability to learn from its own mistakes.