Rick Santorum signals the declining relevance of the Tea Party
Feb 19, 2012

Rick Santorum signals the declining relevance of the Tea Party

Rick Santorum's recent rise to the number one contender spot versus perennial front-runner Mitt Romney has frequently been described as simply being the last in line of a long list of not-Romney flavor of the months. As in, there is nothing particularly special or meaningful in his recent and likely transient rise. However, this fits into a larger pattern; namely, the decline of the Tea Party as a relevant operating force within the Republican party and a turn to the long running, conventional establishment vs. evangelical schism within the Republican party. As an archetypal member of that latter category, Rick Santorum may thus have more staying power than his predecessors.

In 2010, the political story of the year was the Tea Party and its tremendous success at riding a high wave of Republican victories in the midterms. In congress, Tea Party members were revolting against the establishment Republican leaders, transforming the congressional, and indeed national, agenda and dialogue. With the GOP Presidential nominee still two years away, the smart money was that this contest would be fought between the establishment candidate (putatively, Mitt Romney) and an as yet undetermined Tea Party challenger. It would be a battle between the establishment and the Tea Party for no less than control of the GOP and the country.

That battle never materialized. It wasn't that the Tea Party hasn't dominated, they hardly appear to even be in the race. Of the seven people who have polled nationally at one point or other higher than Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann is the only real Tea Party candidate. Indeed, her candidacy in this race represented the Tea Party and much of her motivation for this race undoutably was to solidify herself as the leader of the Tea Party - not Sarah Palin. She experienced an early bump when she managed to win the test measure of the Iowa straw poll, but her campaign subsequently fizzled without many pops or bangs until she eventually dropped out.

Who else could take the Tea Party flag? Hermain Cain was a dilettante - much loved for his value in contributing to the media news cycle, but with little reason to represent the Tea Party or anybody else (Koch brothers funding aside). Rick Perry never claimed the Tea Party mantle during his terms as a Texas Governor; indeed, in many ways he should be considered more establishment than Tea Party. Newt Gingrich, despite his temporary boosts of support, is the antithesis of the Tea Party: the prodigal Washington wall feature with decades in office and lobying along with a myriad of heterodox views that only coincidentally overlap with the Tea Party. Ron Paul - in some ways the grandfather of the Tea Party movement - has, despite some success in this campaign, never captured the mass appeal of those who self-identify as Tea Party members and has remained true to his ideological libertarian core while the Tea Party moved from its original roots.

Which leaves the current runner-up: Rick Santorum. Rick Santorm may enjoy support from Tea Party members. But he is hardly anything approaching the Tea Party. He is a Bush era establishment Republican who was in lock step with that administration (an administration the Tea Party ostensibly distances itself from). This is precisely how Mitt Romney is attacking him in ads. His central claim to fame - from the Bush years to the early days of the nomination, to today - has been is that he is the social conservative espousing all the right traditional Christian values. Rick Perry also tried to present himself in a similar way and may well have succeeded at taking this role (as innumerable commentators at the time predicted) were he not to have failed so memorably in the crucial debates.

We have seen this breed of Republican before. It is the old dichotomy between the Republicans that pitches an establishment that cares about the economy, tax policy, regulations, and most importantly its wealthy donors, against a much more populist social conservatism that cares about guns, gays, and God. On the one side are the financial elites capable of shelling out over a million bucks each to the candidate of their choice, and the reality of needing to appeal to the 40% of GOP caucus and primary voters who are evangelicals in some states.

In that narrative, Rick Santorum vs Mitt Romney makes perfect sense. Mitt Romney represents the establishment choice who has all the money and all the endorsements. Rick Santorum represents the Christian social conservatives who gets the backing of evangelical leaders. It is because he overlaps with this base so well - in ways that Newt Gingrich or Herman Cain never could - that he may have legitimate staying power. That is, unless the impeding firestorm of negative superPAC ads coming at him simply decimates his appeal.

That the Tea Party was unable to retain the staying power to be the dominant countervailing demographic within the GOP, and was unable to find and present a candidate of their own to back, represents nothing less than a decline in the relevance of the Tea Party. In 2010 they were the dominant countervailing force in American politics; today they hardly seem relevant to anywhere close to the same extent. The major narrative offered to explain the race thus far has been that the GOP has been clutching at a cabal of weak candidates desperately trying to find someone they can offer up instead of the despised Mitt Romney. Even this narrative - somewhat weak though I think it is - is intrinsically accepting that the Tea Party is not a particularly relevant player and that it is a reaction to Mitt Romney, not the Tea Party, that is driving this race.

One of the fundamental problems that the Tea Party has had is to figure out how they are different from conventional Republicans. In many ways, the Tea Party seems nothing but a sort of supped up and more extreme version of normal Republican politics. Republicans don't like gay marriage or abortion; the Tea Party really doesn't like gay marriage or abortion. Republicans don't like spending or taxes; the Tea Party can accept calls against essentially any and all spending or taxation. It isn't fundamentally new politics, it is just the old politics with a new framing and with a new enthusiasm. As such, we should not be particularly surprised that it doesn't form a core division within the party that has staying power the way the establishment vs evangelical schism does have legitimate policy and value differences that have lasting consequences for the party.

The extent to which the above is true is of critical importance to Rick Santorum. Should the Tea Party truly be the dominant countervailing force in the Republican party, it is hard to imagine how Rick Santorum could ever truly represent them and enthusiasm for him must be tepid. Should it be a traditional, populist social conservatism with a heavily religious twist that is the dominant countervailing force, I can see this demographic being very excited about Rick Santorum. If so, he just may have staying power in this race. Even if not, Rick Santorum truly is the last in line.

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