Democrats like to blame the Tea Party for everything because it satisfies their conviction that the GOP is captive to extreme interests; the Republican establishment does so because it allows elites to evade blame for the party’s electoral and philosophical failures. I don’t want to be the latest in the long line of writers to pronounce the Tea Party on its deathbed, only to have it flare up and prove me wrong. As Skocpol rightly notes, the Tea Party’s widely distributed, passionately engaged grassroots network combines with the clout of well-funded advocacy groups to create a potent squeeze on lawmakers from above and below. Last summer’s fight over defunding Obamacare, and the government shutdown that resulted, showed that, if anything, the movement’s activists have only become more aggressive in wielding this power. Incumbent Republican senators, even quite conservative ones like Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, face primary challengers who see them as excessively conciliatory; House Speaker John Boehner seems helplessly in thrall to his caucus’s most radical members and the outside agitators that egg them on. (Or he did—more on that in a bit.) Cruz clearly isn’t going anywhere, and the next election could well deliver him still more allies in his Washington-based war on Washington.
Nonetheless, in relative terms, I see a Tea Party whose influence is gradually declining, not increasing. Its clout in Congress appears to be on the wane. Its ability to win intra-GOP contests is being newly challenged. And the organizational advantages it once enjoyed are no longer so clear-cut. The GOP rank and file that greeted the movement as an exciting infusion of new energy now regard it with weariness and skepticism. The far right, in turn, has focused much of its ire on the Republican Party itself, with increasing threats to start a third-party splinter movement. This seems unlikely to happen, but it reflects Tea Partiers’ frustration at their inability to control the GOP more fully.