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?

Rebecca Cook / Reuters / File
Gary (r.) and Samuel, last names withheld, wear 'Stop Obama, Stop Socialism' tea bag hats they are selling at the Tea Party Political Fair in Charlotte, Mich., July 2010. Populist uprisings are common in American history, but most were folded into the major parties or else faded into obscurity. What will be the tea party's fate?

Flush with electoral success and a new Gallup poll that shows 7 in 10 Americans want Republicans to heed its small-government ideas, the tea party movement is on a roll toward its ultimate prize: determining the 2012 presidential election and becoming, in Sarah Palin's words, "the future of politics in America."

But the tea party phenomenon teeters at a critical point in its rags-to-riches two-year history. In fact, the future of the tea party could largely be determined in the next few months as its willingness – or not – to compromise on key issues comes into sharp focus.

"The big question is whether the tea party is politically savvy enough and realistic enough to realize that democracy works through incrementalism, or are we going to see this passion that says, 'If you compromise, you're done,' which is basically forming a circular firing squad," says Robert Watson, a political scientist at Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Fla.

American history shows that populist political insurgencies can burn out as fast as they flare up, either absorbed into a major party or shunted to the ineffectual fringes of the American mainstream.

The 19th century's anti-immigration Know-Nothing movement dissipated after striking deals with Democrats and losing the 1896 presidential election. At the other end of the spectrum, the 1960s John Birch movement, which also began as a right-wing Republican reaction to a Democratic president, remains a constituency for some Republicans today.

So far, the tea party has managed to emerge as a quixotic, if amorphous, force largely focused on economic issues, but imbued by strains of past xenophobic movements and simmering with culture war issues like "God, guns, and gays," says Professor Watson. Before the November election, USA Today columnist DeWayne Wickham predicted that these views spelled its doom. "Left alone, there's a good chance that the tea party will sputter out of existence as quickly as the Know-Nothing movement did," he wrote last September.

But in a poll released on Monday, the Gallup organization found that the tea party has moved toward the mainstream of the political debate, reporting that 71 percent of Americans said the Republican party should take tea party positions into account when crafting new policy.

Many Democrats still hope the tea partyers can be sidelined, and would gladly see Republicans nominate more candidates in the Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell vein – two tea party-backed candidates who won Republican primaries but failed to muster enough votes in Nevada and Delaware general elections for the US Senate.

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?

"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."

Tea party Republicans are gauging such sentiments now. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida declined last week to join the Senate Tea Party Caucus, raising eyebrows among some tea party activists.

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.

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