It’s instructive to remember that when the Tea Party first began to gather steam, the name referred to a “party” in the celebration sense – the Boston Tea Party, specifically: an event of planned chaos, a protest that masqueraded as an Indian attack. Over time, the name has lost its punny puckishness much as the movement has steadily shifted from a proudly anarchical – even populist – response and rebellion within the GOP to a smoothly functioning alternative to it. The government shutdown proved that attempts by the GOP establishment to co-opt the Tea Party as a source of energy just created a network of political sleeper agents. With its own mechanism for drafting (and supporting) candidates, its own agenda, and its own media eco-system, the Tea Party is a third party by almost any criteria but ballot affiliation – and leadership. The absence of any official organizational structure might be one reason the Tea Party has remained so lively despite a terrible national reputation and negligible policy achievements. When something goes wrong, those identified with the failure fade for a time and the attention of Tea Party-identified voters shifts smoothly to someone else. There’s also no demand for positive policy victories or signature legislation: no one has to win a debate, just spoil the outcome. Thus it’s no surprise that Ted Cruz is the current face of the Tea Party: All his achievements are proudly in the negative, all his goals are set resolutely in the past. But the Tea Party’s fickle and hive-like nature virtually demands that Cruz cycle out of the spotlight eventually. He will either fail to stop something from happening or, perhaps worse, accidentally cause something to get done. For when that happens: here’s a look at some of the Tea Party’s once and perhaps future leaders. The don’t-call-them comebacks: politicians and activists who’ve tasted Tea Party’s adoration and haven’t given up on a second sip. These are primarily hacks who clawed their way on stage at some point and are now biding their time in minor-media purgatory with the hope that they’ll be able to fake-controversy themselves into relevance once more. Herman Cain: the one-time front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination sputtered into the national conversation just this week, asserting the accusations of sexual harassment that sealed the end of his campaign were the work of “a force bigger than right”: the Devil. He is an aggressive and peppy Twitter user and turns up on Fox Business to predict disaster on a regular basis.
Former Congressman Allen West (Florida): the former congressman who compared the Democrats to Josef Goebbles and worried about Obama supports being a “threat to the gene pool” last month left his post as the director of programming for the conservative news aggregator Pajamas Media under allegations of anti-Semitism. He claimed that he was moving on voluntarily “to pursue political aspirations.” So keep an eye out.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Minnesota): she’s leaving Congress even as an ethics investigation against her continues; if she is seeking a quieter life you wouldn’t know it by the bombs she keeps throwing: In the last month, she proclaimed the government reopening to be “a very sad day” and said that Obama’s presidency was a sign of the end of the world. Miley Cyrus played her in an SNL sketch.
Congressman Paul Ryan (Wisconsin): former vice-presidential candidate currently in some kind of witness protection program, but he did manage to smuggle out a Wall Street Journal op-ed that was mostly ignored. He’s in a gym somewhere, waiting. Waiting.
Former Governor Sarah Palin (Alaska): will not be ignored, even though people try to: Her trippy word-salad appearance on Fox during the shutdown prompted an uncharacteristic reining in of the Wasilla wildwoman, with Megyn Kelly desperately trying to stop the crazy train: “Let me jump in! Let me jump in! But I want to ask you a question governor!”
Joe “the plumber” Wurzelbacher: His 15 minutes of fame ticks inexorably on, strung out by Wurzelbacher’s proud adoption of the Misunderstood White Guy cause. He popped into consciousness last month for re-posting a rant about “wanting a white President.” He is also available to act as a plumber. Most likely to succeed: Sarah Palin. She combines lack of self-awareness with a contradictory but well-honed sense of what makes good clickbait. Reporters will never, ever tire of her. The junior varsity class: They have yet to capture the Tea Party’s full attention, but could bound onto centerstage at any moment.
Senator Mike Lee (Utah): Right now probably best known as the guy still willing to sit next to Ted Cruz in the Senate cafeteria, Lee was one of the first candidates to stage a “Tea Party” challenge to a sitting Republican senator. Despite a narrow victory in that primary (that included placing second at the official nominating convention), Lee has legislated like a man who believes he’s got the mandate of a movement. He was at Cruz’s side, literally, during most of the shutdown and echoed the fiery rhetoric of the most extreme conservatives (he compared the campaign to shutdown the government to the Revolutionary War). Utahans are reportedly unhappy about this – all the better to move to a national stage!
Congressman Tom Cotton (Arkansas): Cotton has racked up an impressive amount of national attention as a fresh Republican face, and he’s done it without saying anything especially insane. He did quote John Wilkes Booth approvingly once, but has reserved his extremism more for policy than punditry – he wanted to extend sanctions on Iranian human rights violators to family members (in violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against conviction on the basis of “corruption of blood”) and was among those to vote for stripping food stamp provisions from the Farm Bill (this despite representing a third of Arkansas’ over 500,000 food stamp recipients). He’s challenging a conservative Democrat, Mark Pryor, rather than a moderate Republican in the state’s Senate race; a win could put him at the mean girls table with Lee and Cruz.
Matt Bevin: Bevin is the Kentucky hedge-fund manager mounting a populist primary challenge to that RINO squish Mitch McConnell (the current Senate Republican leader). McConnell’s refusal to champion Tea Party causes – he didn’t speak about the government shutdown until its third day – has made Bevin attractive to far right fundraisers and activists. Based more on disappointment in McConnell than Bevin’s promise (or crazy talk), his otherwise quixotic campaign (unseating a five-term minority leader) has gotten national attention and support from the likes of the Senate Conservative Fund (early backers of Cruz and Lee, as well as Cotton) and Palin. Most likely to succeed: I’ve got my eye on Cotton. He’s currently beating Democrat Mark Pryor by four points in the US senate race matchup. Pryor has already put up ads tying Cotton to the shutdown, but the tactic might not succeed as well as it could in other races – not because Arkansas voters liked the shutdown much more than anyone else, but because Cotton was savvy about moderating his support of it. In the end, in fact, he was one of the few House Republicans who voted to end it. Could that cost him national Tea Party support? It didn’t even cost him the support of the Club for Growth, who has been running ads on his behalf. As for the Tea party base, once Cotton is in the Senate he won’t have to answer to voters as often or as quickly and can take the same cost-free extreme stands that other Tea Party senators do. The models of false-modesty: these elected officials have been lauded as Tea Party leaders despite professed reluctance and unsure attachment. They have political positions that make for an occasionally uncomfortable fit but seem willing to tailor them if the Tea Party mantle comes with extra large pockets and a presidential berth. Governor Chris Christie (New Jersey): despite his notorious post-Sandy embrace of Obama, Christie’s bullying personality echoes favorably among Tea Party supporters. He casts his history of bipartisan negotiation as a form of steamrolling practicality, and many of his actual policies, save regarding gun control, fit comfortably within the far right framework. It’s chic now for the hard right to denounce him: he didn’t fight gay marriage hard enough, for instance. But if he can roll out enough insults to Democrats and pal around with more conventional Tea Party heroes such as Steve Lonegan (the erstwhile GOP NJ senate candidate), Christie could convince the conservative base he has their best interests at his large heart.
Senator Marco Rubio (Florida): Rubio was a relatively minor player in the shutdown theater, but he stands to benefit enormously from it as far as Tea Party support goes, as it has weakened the chances that the immigration debate will return to front-and-center. Rubio’s valiant effort to craft a message on immigration that could appeal to the deeply skeptical conservative fringe shook up what had been a masterful Jenga-like tower of mixed positions: a little Tea Party here, a little GOP careerism there. He now looks more careerist than ever. Perhaps more problematic is Rubio’s attempt to distance himself from the shutdown in retrospect: He now says, “I was never in favor of shutting down the government,” a story that seems tailored to make him seem reasonable, which won’t do at all.
Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky): Paul’s weak spot is foreign policy—not so much that he doesn’t have any experience (few Tea Party darlings do) but that he sounds an isolationist note that can register to many self-proclaimed patriots dangerously like weakness. Paul has been sly about positioning on this, however; at the Value Voters conference earlier this month, Paul gave a rousingly xenophobic speech heavy on Biblical allusions to Muslims’ perfidy… he just declined to say we should bomb them. He thundered, “I will not rest” until Christian pastor Saeed Abedini is released from Iranian prison, but was cagey about what his wakefulness entailed: “everything within our power, within our voice, from the White House, from the State Department, from our government” stops conspicuously short of military intervention. That base covered, or at least shaded, Paul’s other positions (pro-life, pro-gun, against NSA surveillance, Obamacare, regulation in general) need little protective coloring in the deep red climes of Tea Party nation. What’s more, his genial stiffness and shy self-awareness give him a kind of awkward dignity compared to the preening smugness of Cruz. Most likely to succeed: Rand Paul. I suspect he’ll continue to stand to Cruz’s side for awhile longer, collecting speaking engagements and offering Cruz fulsome praise until Cruz’s moment ends. The only important variable is when that moment comes; I’m betting that Rand hopes it lasts until sometime in the fall of 2015.