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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014
Tom Jackson

Jackson: Welcome to the tea party evolution

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Published:   |   Updated: June 2, 2014 at 07:25 AM

Regarding the tea party, the moment seems appropriate to resurrect Mark Twain's legendary response to rumors of his death. Such reports are exaggerated, perhaps greatly.

The evidence is not in events alone, although there is that. Precisely one week after tea party favorites were flattened in Republican primaries by incumbents indistinguishable, goes the narrative, from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, the movement that so preoccupies the left rose from the slab in Texas, where all five Republicans seeking high-profile office won runoffs with endorsements from tea party standard-setter Sen. Ted Cruz.

Of equal interest, despite being drowned out by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's easy, breezy win over tea party-backed businessman Matt Bevin in Kentucky on May 13 — the outcome that triggered a thousand obituaries — was the emergence in Nebraska of newcomer Ben Sasse (as in “grass”), an Ivy Leaguer with tea party credentials who talks of making conservatism “more winsome” to persuadable skeptics. Cornhuskers gave Sasse nearly 50 percent of their votes in a crowded GOP field.

Confronted with fresh signs of life, pundits who'd brandished shovels at the first sniff of tea party road kill generally declined to confess the obvious, that they'd been too eager to conduct a proper and permanent burial.

On equally scant evidence, you could just as well argue the wilting of the Clinton rose. Last week, Democratic voters in Philadelphia soundly rejected the mother-in-law of former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, also known as Marjorie Margolies, in her bid for Congress. After Bill and Hill helped Margolies raise money, and the former president even cut an ad for her, Margolies lost to a union-backed Pennsylvania state representative by 36 points.

Big deal.

Meanwhile, two other crucial factors went largely missing from this requiem-for-a-movement discussion.

First, the tea party's grass-roots energy reawakened conservatism as an animating force within the broader GOP base, even as fewer Republicans claim affiliation with, or affinity for, the tea party itself. Virtually all GOP office-seekers this spring are tacking distinctly starboard, which Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) considers regular order.

“There's not that big a difference between what you call the tea party and your average conservative Republican,” he said after incumbents held serve a couple of weeks ago. “We're against Obamacare, we think taxes are too high, we think government is too big.” See? It's a big tent.

Also not to be underestimated: Beginning in April 2010, the IRS froze the applications of nearly 300 organizations seeking tax-exempt status under names containing trigger words: patriot, tea party, 9/12. The IRS' big-footing of tea party applicants shrank conservative outreach efforts in 2012 and reverberates even now.

Nonetheless, tea partiers putter along, evolving stylistically and tactically — surely they wouldn't endorse another shutdown, or duck the general election if their guy isn't nominated — while adhering to their principled, and superior, arguments about limited government.

New to the fray four years ago, tea party activists caught lightning in a bottle. Now they're learning that's not always how it works, and that the other side can hustle, too. Under such circumstances, getting what you want sometimes involves accepting imperfect alliances.

That's not death. It's survival by other means.

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