Can the tea party survive success?
American history is littered with populist political insurgencies that withered on the vine once their ideas got bigger play. Is the tea party different?
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The basic challenge is whether the tea party – and, by proxy, figureheads like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann – can hold pragmatic approaches to the debt limit, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, and the upcoming budget battle, while still remaining distinct from the GOP establishment. And, conversely, can Republicans marshal tea party ideas without alienating voters?Skip to next paragraph
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"Republicans are in a very challenging position now that they're in power, trying to deliver while having Michele Bachmann with the tea party caucus just waiting for leadership to not go far enough," says Tom De Luca, a political science professor at Fordham University, in New York. "It may require more than licking a finger and putting it in the air. They're going to have to figure out exactly how far they can move toward the tea party without alienating voters they're going to depend on."
Others point to the tea-party backing of moderate Republican Sen. Scott Brown (R) of Massachusetts as a sign that the movement is willing to compromise – at least, on a case-by-case basis – to achieve greater goals.
"Our concern is that we do get smaller government, less intrusive government, and that we get our country back on the track that the Founding Fathers put it on," says Shelly Pettus, a tea party activist in Florence, Ala. "I don't care if they call themselves a Democrat as long as they do what the American people want."
Yet Senator Rubio managed to put the snub in the context of a tea party ideal. "If all of a sudden being in the tea party is not something that is happening in Main Street but rather something that's happening in Washington, D.C., the tea party all of a sudden becomes some sort of movement run by politicians," Rubio told the Florida political blog, the Shark Tank. "It's gonna lose its effectiveness, and I'm concerned about that."
The ultimate arbiter of the tea party's future may be the 2012 presidential election. If Republicans nominate anyone but Sarah Palin in 2012, a new Rasmussen poll shows, nearly half of Palin supporters would likely vote for a third party, which could, in turn, doom Republican chances of unseating President Obama.
In the 2012 election, Americans will see just how pragmatic the tea party is willing to be and, thus, "how long it will last," says Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver.