“Everything I’m doing now in terms of talking about climate, talking about immigration, talking about Gitmo is completely opposite of where the Tea Party movement’s at,” Graham said as Cato drove him to the city of Greenwood, where he was to give a commencement address at Lander University later that morning. On four occasions, Graham met with Tea Party groups. The first, in his Senate office, was “very, very contentious,” he recalled. During a later meeting, in Charleston, Graham said he challenged them: “ ‘What do you want to do? You take back your country — and do what with it?’ . . . Everybody went from being kind of hostile to just dead silent.”

In a previous conversation, Graham told me: “The problem with the Tea Party, I think it’s just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out.” Now he said, in a tone of casual lament: “We don’t have a lot of Reagan-type leaders in our party. Remember Ronald Reagan Democrats? I want a Republican that can attract Democrats.” Chortling, he added, “Ronald Reagan would have a hard time getting elected as a Republican today.”…

[Rahm] Emanuel went on to say: “He’s willing to work on more things than the others. Lindsey, to his credit, has a small-government vision that’s out of fashion with his party, which stands for no government. . . . He’s one of the last big voices to give that vision intellectual energy.”

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“Graham’s comment reflects the very thing we felt all along — that is, that he is incredibly out of touch with the people of South Carolina,” Jonathon Hill, organizer of the Anderson Tea Party, S.C., told reporter Alix Pianin.

Others agreed. “I think he’s hoping it’ll die out because he’s not too favorable among the tea party,” Allen Olson, who organizes the Columbia Tea Party, told us. On the issue of staying power, Olson said “I believe we do, absolutely.”

“In fact,” he went on, “I’m determined just to keep it going to get him elected out of office in 2014.”

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Even so, the movement is less a party than an anti-party, with no clear consensus about whom its national leaders are and a generally dyspeptic view of organized political power.

“It’s a party opposed to the idea of parties,” says Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian whose book about the movement, The Whites of Their Eyes, is scheduled to be published in October. The Tea Party reminds her more of a religious revival than a political movement. She compares it to the Second Great Awakening in the 1830s, a religious resurgence that helped fuel temperance and abolitionism…

Their faith in the Founding Fathers is a signature of the movement. Citing links to the Revolution has been a mainstay of American politics since the nation’s beginnings, Lepore says, but the way the Tea Party uses those symbols and language is original. “It is a fundamentalist way of thinking of the past: The founding documents are gospel; they come alive for us,” she says.