It changed our politics, briefly, fleetingly. Now Congress’s latest budget shows the GOP is back to its Bush-era ways.
It was 2013 and I was sitting in my office when one of my co-workers shuffled in. He had a headache, he said, the result of a campaign he was running for a position in local Republican politics that had unexpectedly turned rocky. The problem was the voters: they had tagged him as an establishment man and no matter how many times he touted his conservative bona fides, he couldn’t seem to dispel their skepticism. “Only one thing matters now,” he said, “immigration. They’re just livid about that.”
Looking back, that conversation marked, for me anyway, the moment that the Tea Party began to change, from a loosely woven coalition of activists worried about big government to the right-wing nationalist force that would eventually elect Donald Trump. (The brightest indicator of all would come a year later, when Dave Brat knocked off House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Republican primary by running a campaign obsessed with immigration.) The causes of the Tea Party’s mutation were many: anger with Washington intransigence, the imprint of charlatans like Sarah Palin, the sheer tedium of subjects like budget super committees, an ethos of “libertarian populism” that perhaps inevitably saw its latter element consume its former. Yet every time you were ready to mourn the original Tea Party, there it was gasping and lurching off the gurney, thanks in large part to the GOP’s enduring Class of 2010. As recently as March of last year, Freedom Caucus members managed to sink the initial version of the American Health Care Act, Congress’s “fix” for Obamacare, on the good old-fashioned grounds that it was too accommodationist and too crony capitalist.
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