Tea Party turns five today

And just like any birthday, the Tea Party plans to celebrate in style — and in Washington DC, where the grassroots movement has made an indelible impact. The Tea Party Patriots has reservations at the Hyatt Regency for an all-day symposium (which started at 8:30 this morning), with an impressive list of headliners. Mark Levin and Sean Hannity demonstrate the media reach of the movement, but it’s the new Washington insiders that are the most impressive. Five years ago, Senators Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul weren’t even on the radar screens for most Americans.

Roll Call has a report on the five-year mark and the progress made in changing the direction of conservatism, which depends on who one asks:

But five years in, the political movement is not easy to evaluate. Among the sentiments we heard from Republican lawmakers as we assessed the tea party over the past week were that it’s been successful, that it’s pushed legislative change on spending issues, that it’s still experiencing growing pains, and even that it’s “dangerous.”

There’s not much of a central organization inside the Congress. (Bachmann’s Tea Party Caucus website hasn’t been updated since June.) Newer lawmakers, like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have taken over much of the tea party spotlight.

Still, many of the tea party’s goals have been thwarted — Obamacare still stands largely untouched and the president is moving forward with a vast regulatory agenda. But the one area where the tea party’s impact has been lasting and deep is in reversing the stimulus spending policies of the president and enacting the deepest discretionary spending cuts in memory.

“The tea party’s legacy is to really expose the spending that’s out of control in Washington,” said RSC Chairman Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

“We were elected as a restraining order,” said Michael C. Burgess of Texas.

And they gave Republicans what may be an enduring House majority.

I’d say that Burgess comes closest to the point. The Tea Party arose to oppose a further erosion of personal liberty and put a brake on the expansion of spending. Those short-term goals have largely been accomplished, although they may not be as satisfying to some as they should. It takes time for a movement to evolve into a broad force that can win national elections, or even state and local elections. It took the New Left decades to reach that potential, from its start in the 1960s to the eclipse of the Democratic Leadership Council formed in part to blunt its radicalism and make Democrats competitive in the 1992 presidential election. Bill Clinton was the last and only DLC President; Barack Obama is the first true New Left President, and it took 40 years for that movement to win it.

On that timeline, the Tea Party is well ahead of schedule. They need time to move key figures into party leadership in order to eclipse the old establishment, but they’re already winning key elections to start that process. The key issue for the Tea Party may be patience, and improving messaging in order to broaden their appeal. The American Enterprise Institute notes that results from six polling series indicate that messaging may be an issue at the moment:

Six pollsters ask people whether they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party. All of the polls with recent askings show that unfavorable sentiment has risen, sometimes quite sharply, since the questions were first asked. In a February 2010 ABC News/Washington Post poll, 35 percent had a favorable opinion and 40 percent an unfavorable one. In October 2013, those responses were 26 and 59 percent respectively. In a March 2010 Quinnipiac poll of registered voters, 28 percent had a favorable opinion and 23 percent an unfavorable one. In November 2013 those responses were 27 and 47 percent, respectively.

Let’s celebrate a happy birthday to the Tea Party by celebrating its success, and learning from the missteps along the way.