After five years, what’s next for the Tea Party? Two possible answers may be found in the different but overlapping paths of two of the movement’s most prominent politicians.
Ted Cruz and Mike Lee were both elected to the U.S. Senate as Tea Party insurgents who defeated the Republican establishment during the nominating process. Lee toppled an incumbent. Cruz beat a sitting lieutenant governor backed by most state party leaders and replaced an incumbent who was seen as too moderate for Texas.
Cruz and Lee were at the forefront of last fall’s doomed effort to defund Obamacare. They managed to get the House to pass a defund bill and initiated a 16-day showdown with the Democrats, during which the federal government was partially shut down.
In his speech at the fifth anniversary of the group Tea Party Patriots, Cruz was unrepentant. “If you listen to the media, if you listen to Democrats—although I repeat myself—they will say the fight to stop Obamacare did not succeed,” he said.
Nonsense, according to Cruz. The senator continued: “Well, I’m a big believer the proof is in the pudding. Last fall, millions of Americans rose up and said, ‘Stop the disaster that is Obamacare.’ … We elevated the national debate of the incredible harms Obamacare is visiting on millions of Americans.”
Lee makes no apologies for their anti-Obamacare strategy either, but his own speech to the Tea Party Patriots showed a subtle difference. “I remind myself from time to time that as Constitutional conservatives, it’s our job to find converts,” Lee said. “We need to spend more effort creating converts than identifying heretics.” Cruz has declined to endorse his fellow Republican senator from Texas against virtually hopeless primary challengers.
Utah’s junior senator hasn’t exactly gone soft on the Republican establishment. “Right now, we’re hindered to some extent by virtue of the fact that there is sometimes—and there certainly is right now—a natural tension that can exist within a political party, with that political party’s elected leadership on the one hand and that’s party’s base and grassroots on the other hand,” he added. “That tension has created a gulf, a hole, in the Republican Party that I believe is actually the size and the shape of a conservative reform agenda…”
Cruz more skillfully hit the hot buttons on Obamacare and failed gun-control legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings. Lee waxed philosophical and talked about the Founding Fathers, having already delivered a series of speeches outlining his vision of a conservative reform agenda: cutting taxes for families with children, making college more affordable, even addressing work-life balance—mainly through shrinking rather than growing the federal government.
Last year, Lee reminded an audience at the Heritage Foundation that in November 2016, the country will be as far removed from Ronald Reagan’s first election as it was from D-Day in 1980. He said the party “clings to its 1970s agenda like a security blanket,” adding, “The result is that to many Americans today, especially to the underprivileged and the middle class, or those who have come of age or immigrated since Reagan left office, the Republican Party may not seem to have much of a relevant reform agenda at all.”
Many grassroots conservatives see Cruz as the last honest man in Washington. He fights against the liberal policies most Republicans rail against on the campaign trail, in the process seeming to expose many of his colleagues as unwilling to back up their election-year talk.
But there is a question of results. The spike in popular discontent with Obamacare Cruz mentions came after the law’s implementation, not during his filibuster. The House’s full or partial 40 repeal votes, which Cruz downplayed, would have clearly positioned Republicans as the anti-Obamacare party. Even so, Cruz still could have called attention to the “incredible harms Obamacare is visiting on millions of Americans” without a government shutdown that served mainly to distract the public from those harms.
Since then, the Tea Party has been weaker in Washington. Republicans passed a bipartisan budget that rolled back some of sequestration, the biggest spending cut success the party has had since the 2010 elections. Congress also passed a bloated nearly $1 trillion farm bill and a clean debt ceiling increase while rescinding the largest spending cut Republicans got in exchange for weakening the sequester.
After the Obamacare funding fight ended, Republican congressional leaders seemed much more willing to defy the Tea Party.
Cruz’s indictment of the party establishment is entirely correct. Republicans have long won power running on platforms they will never enact. The question is whether the Tea Party will replace the establishment, by offering something like Lee’s creative agenda for conservative reform, or ape it by raising money and nursing conservative grievances.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?