The dominant political force in the United States in recent years – the Tea Party movement – appears to have lost much of its swagger and most of its influence as Republicans began the formal process of choosing their presidential candidate at the Iowa caucuses this week.
From its spontaneous creation in early 2009, the Tea Party movement eagerly expressed the anger Americans felt at their loss of prestige and buying power after the 2008 financial meltdown. Big government and taxation were to blame; big spending cuts the only cure.
Despite its over-simplification of conservatism, the Tea Party became the most important story of the 2010 mid-term elections. Tea Party adherents swamped Republican nomination meetings and replaced long-time incumbents with rookie candidates who shared a singular focus on making government smaller. Since the success of 2010, however, the tide has been turning.
A year ago more Americans agreed with the Tea Party movement (27 per cent) than disagreed (20 per cent), according to a Pew Research Center poll. Now those numbers are exactly reversed. The results from Iowa suggest a continuation of this trend. The candidates most closely identified with the Tea Party, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, found themselves far behind. The libertarian Ron Paul finished a respectable third, but remains a long shot.
The two best-positioned candidates coming out of Iowa are Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum – the least preferred among Tea Partiers. Mr. Romney’s strong showing among non-Tea Party Republicans secured his narrow victory in the Hawkeye state.
The decline of a grassroots movement without any central organization is not surprising in 2012. It is one thing to take over congressional nomination meetings, another to control the entire primary process. The establishment still matters when it comes to picking a presidential nominee, and Mr. Romney is very much the establishment candidate.
And it is now obvious the Tea Party’s stridency has added to the gridlock and intransigence in Washington. While it brought necessary attention to the country’s fiscal crisis, voters have come to realize the movement is sorely lacking in compromise and imagination. A strong brew is not the answer to America’s problems.