In 2010, GOP politicians were keen to channel Tea Party fervor. Now, backed into a corner by the base, they're looking for an exit

Looking forward to the midterm elections, the Republican party is seeking to repeat the dramatic performance of 2010 that ushered in a freshman class of Tea Party activists and reinforced for the GOP establishment the notion that their best hope for growing the party was to stop everything else in its tracks. They had no animating principle besides blanket opposition.

In retrospect, the failure of that attitude seems written into its foundations. At a retreat for freshmen congressmen sponsored by Freedom Works (whose money and organization has kept the increasingly unpopular Tea Party afloat), one aspiring legislator freely admitted that the gathering lacked the key component of, you know, legislation:

We didn't get so much into the issues … I think what we're all taking away from this is how we can continue the momentum of the movement.

Today, the party is publicly scrabbling for another program of action, even as their congressional members surrender to inertia over and over again. Clearly, something must feel good about voting to repeal Affordable Care Act if they're going to do it 42 times in a row – but it suggests the kind of solitary pursuit our mothers once warned would make us go blind.

Whatever the cause, congressional Republicans do not seem clear-eyed about the way forward. Indeed, their plan seems to still be coming together in negative terms – in terms of what not to do: don't alienate women, don't alienate Latinos and immigrants, don't bash gays, don't cater to the wealthy. The party is having difficulty sticking to this nascent plan, to say the least.

But this summer, as the denizens of Capitol Hill retreat back to their districts, there is one clear change, one solid piece of evidence that the GOP is going to do things differently: they're avoiding town halls, the cauldron of Tea Party activism that helped convince congressmen that "no" could be a complete answer. (A mantra that works well in therapeutic environments but hinders leadership in the real world.)

The New York Times reports that the events are not on congressional schedules, and that members have taken to making what few do take place hard-to-find and even harder to use as a springboard for theatrics: small venues scheduled on short notice. Looking back at how activists actually used those events, again the dismal future is inscribed on the past. A 2010 Freedom Works memo (pdf) that advised activists to use tactics to artificially inflate their presence seems especially poignant: they were, literally, fooling only themselves. Today, just a tiny fraction of the nation's voters, 8%, identify as members, with about 24% expressing "support".

The Obamacare-phobia, which the town halls thrived on, has proven unsustainable in light of the lack of near-term catastrophe. And with the administration's very canny, perhaps necessary tactic of slowing down implementation, the town hall organizers cannot count on it as a rallying point today. Other hot-button issues have already proven to be either more fodder for Democratic ads and energy than for Republican ones (restricting immigration and reproductive rights), or simply uninteresting to the average voter (Benghazi).

Even the allegations that the White House directed the IRS to target conservative groups (a charge that testimony has cast into doubt) has failed to rally more voters to the Tea Party – despite polls showing that voters do believe the conservative narrative. Indeed, some polls show Obama's support growing despite the scandal.

Analysts argue that Obama's popularity in the face of these scandals, "phony" or not, is due to an economy that has steadied, if not dramatically improved. Less important, but key to the White House's ability to navigate congressional gridlock, is the president's persistent ability to telegraph leadership and personal likability: respondents to a July Gallup poll gave him an astounding 76% in personal likability, his highest-rated personal characteristic, with "good judgment in a crisis" (58%), "understands problems Americans face" (56%), "honest and trustworthy" (55%), and "is a strong and decisive leader" (53%) rounding out the top five.

I should note that even I don't believe these descriptions are necessarily related to Obama's actual policies, beliefs and actions. I'm not even sure what all of those policies, beliefs and actions are! And if the administration continues to avoid full compliance with the Freedom of Information Act, we may never know. I do know this: Obama is an extraordinarily disciplined, lucky and charismatic man. What's more, this poll was taken before the revelations of domestic spy programs – though, frustratingly, this information doesn't seem to outrage as many people as civil libertarians (and/or Republicans) might hope.

Given the limits of anger and refusal as political strategies for the GOP, it's no wonder that town halls produced base voter turnout – but not the kind of conservative leadership that could challenge Obama's nonstick personality. (Is it Teflon, like Reagan's? Or some new technology unknown outside of infomercials and labs?)

Town halls were never going to be a good venue to find that leader, depending as they did on confrontation and bombast. Americans like fireworks as a sideshow, and a revolutionary can rile people who are already angry. Indeed, within the subset of Republican voters who consider themselves Tea Party members, the recent NSA leaks have propelled an unprecedented upswing in concern for civil rights. (To echo an internet truism: "It's not OK if Obama does it." See here.) In 2010, self-identified Tea Party members placed national security above civil liberties concerns by a margin of 63 to 20%. Last month, that finding flipped, reported The Fix:

By 55 to 31%, more Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who agree with the Tea Party movement say civil liberties are the bigger concern.

I think this poll actually illustrates the fragility of the Tea Party movement; it is too mercurial to be the basis of policy. In fact, given the choice between "more of a Tea Party member" or "more of a Republican", three quarters of Freedom Works members said "Tea Party". And of course, that's true: how can a Republican congressmen elected in 2010 with the (perceived) mandate to protect the nation at all costs safely flip-flop his position as cleanly as a small but vocal minority of his constituents?

No wonder that this summer, Freedom Works is hoping to use town halls to punish wayward Republicans and not Democrats. They're hoping to pressure GOP politicians into shutting down the government if funding for Obamacare is not pulled from the federal budget. Because targeting Obamacare and government shutdowns have both worked so well for them in the past.

Americans in general don't want an angry leader. Women, acknowledged as a shrinking source of GOP support, shy away from the anger-for-anger's sake style favored by Tea Party activists in droves: among independent-identified women, the Washington Post found that 50% said "the more I hear about the Tea Party, the less I like it."

But fury and agitation is all that the GOP has offered thus far: Cruz, Christie, Santorum, Trump (God help us) continue to drive their own media coverage with outbursts and non-solutions. Marco Rubio is the only GOP varsity player to embody a more deliberate style … and even he seems to be tacking rightward, expressing decreasing support for the immigration bill he helped craft and backing the plan to hold the government hostage over Obamacare.

Conservatives are appropriately exasperated when progressives presume to tell them how to gain support or whom to elect: "Why would you want us to win?" And, it's true, my dream of a Palin-Trump 2016 ticket is not actually in the spirit of making America a more cohesive and less ideologically-divided country. But I am not encouraging Republicans to do anything, and I'm not sure who they could elect.

What I'd like is a conversation. At least, we all now know that town halls are not the place to have them.

© Guardian News and Media 2013

[American conservative tea party voters, fighting mad. Isolated on white via]