The GOP and the Tea Party

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Kathleen Hennessey of the LA Times reports that with the election safely out of the way, Republican senators are none too eager to associate themselves with the tea party movement:

The first meeting of the Senate Tea Party Caucus on Thursday attracted just four senators — out of 47 GOP members — willing to describe themselves as members. The event was as notable for who wasn’t there as who was. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), once a tea party favorite, has for now declined to join the caucus, whose first meeting was organized by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican whose campaign sprung from the small-government movement, has said he’s unsure if he’ll join. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) showed up to address the group of activists, but then hustled out of the room, ignoring reporters’ questions about whether he was in or out.

Hennessey notes that there are institutional reasons that might explain some of this, but I suspect the real reason is simpler: it’s one thing to be a tea partier in a congressional district, which might be small and ideologically extreme. But it’s a lot harder to be one in a statewide office, where you have to appeal to a broader range of the electorate. As lots of analysts have noted, congressional districts have become more polarized over the past couple of decades — partly due to gerrymandering, partly due to geography, and partly due to people actively segregating themselves — and this provides fertile ground for hardcore activists on both sides. But it just doesn’t scale up. Sarah Palin will never be president. Hell, Joe Miller couldn’t even win a Senate seat with her backing. The tea party is having an impact, but it’s mostly at the fringes and the leadership of the GOP will, eventually, swallow it up and spit it out. As I put it earlier this year:

As with the earlier incarnations [of right-wing extremism], its core identity will slowly fade away and become grist for CNN retrospectives, while its broader identity becomes subsumed by a Republican Party that’s been headed down the path of ever less-tolerant conservatism for decades. In that sense, the tea party movement is merely an unusually flamboyant symptom of an illness that’s been breeding for a long time.

That’s already happening, I think.

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