Does the Tea Party still exist? Michele Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus has been all but dormant for months, while new Republican stars are stealing the limelight. As Roll Call's Daniel Newhauser reports, the congressional group Bachmann convened under the Tea Party mantle in 2010 isn't showing many signs of life. Even its Twitter account hasn't tweeted since September —that's two fiscal crises ago! "To say we haven't been real active is an understatement. We haven't done anything," Tea Party Caucus member Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas told Roll Call. "There have been a lot of other things going on," said Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia. As for Bachmann, when she does speak, she doesn't get great results. Last night Fox News' Bill O'Reilly criticized her CPAC speech last weekend for being too trivial. But it's not simply that Bachmann, one of the most prominent Tea Partiers, has lowered her profile after a tough reelection campaign last fall. It's that the core issues that animated the Tea Party movement in 2010 do not animate the GOP in 2013. Yes, House Speaker John Boehner demands spending cuts in a deficit cutting deal. But behind the scenes, Republicans reportedly aren't eager to cut entitlements. That has left a political vacuum: what should Republicans, especially Tea Party Republicans, be talking about?
Bachmann tried to fill that vacuum by pointing out the luxurious lifestyle she said President Obama leads in the White House. Five chefs on Air Force One, she claimed. Two professionals to run the White House movie projectors! A dog walker! (The latter is not true.) Isn't this precisely the kind of wasteful spending the Tea Party should bash? O'Reilly, who reportedly makes more than $10 million a year from Fox, doesn't see a crusade against luxurious living as the next great Republican cause. "This is a trivial pursuit, and Michelle Bachmann made a mistake pursuing it," O'Reilly said. While he agreed it would be nice if Obama's lifestyle were more simple, "Obama is entitled to protection, convenience, and comfort as he runs the nation... Congresswoman Bachmann and all opponents of Mr. Obama should zero-in on what's really important: the president's failure to deal with out of control spending, and his core belief that America's not a fair country. That's what's important, not who is walking the presidential dog." Bachmann herself was bashful about her speech. On Tuesday night, when CNN's Dana Bash tried to ask her about her dog walker claim, Bachmann literally ran away.
But it's not just that Bachmann's star has faded. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is now the party of Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write. "The real action in the GOP is coming from the newest wing of the party, the one born in the spring of 2009 — the offspring of Tea Party activists that almost single-handedly propelled Republicans to control of the House," they say. But Rubio and Rand's signature issues are not the Tea Party issues of opposing taxes, government spending, bailouts, and other forms of creeping socialism. Rand and Rubio's top issues are drones and immigration. Yes, both senators rode the Tea Party wave into office. But look how they've changed their pitch, now that they're both weighing a run for president in 2016. At CPAC in 2010, all Rubio talked about was taxes and spending. Here are the policies he called for in his speech:
Let's reform the tax code and reduce tax rates across the board.
Let's eliminate double taxation by abolishing the taxes on capital gains, on dividends, on interest. And while we're at it, let's eliminate the one on death, too.
Let's significantly lower the corporate tax rates so that once again it's competitive with the rest of the world.
Let's stop big government energy mandates like cap-and-trade, and instead trust the American innovator to make us energy independent.
He also criticized Obamacare and called for spending cuts. Last week, his CPAC speech was totally different. He imagined a struggling family:
They're not free loaders. They're not liberals... They want a better life...
The first thing they really need is an economy, a vast and vibrant economy that's creating the kind of middle class jobs that will allow to get for themselves that better future.
The next thing they need is the skills for those jobs....
And the third thing they need is a place where their cost of living is affordable, where their increased paycheck isn't being eaten away.
Though he didn't offer specifics, that sounds like a call for government programs, not pure spending cuts, which is what the Tea Party demanded. Why the change? They didn't fare so well in 2012. The Tea Party Express endorsed 16 Senate candidates in 2012; only four won. Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus once had 60 members, but 10 lost their seats in 2012, Slate's Dave Weigel reports. That's a pretty bad showing, given the that 90 percent of the House was reelected last year. The caucus will relaunch April 15, Bachmann's spokesman told Weigel.
It's not just a change in message. The fight to repeal Obamacare is waning. Eight Republican governors have accepted funds to expand Medicaid under Obamacare. Earlier this year, House Republicans let some of the Bush tax cuts expire, and they decided not to fight over the debt limit — Tea Partiers' biggest moment in 2011. They say they'll demand spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt limit this summer. But Boehner admitted Sunday, "We do not have an immediate debt crisis, but we all know that we have one looming." House Republicans are publicly considering steps to make a debt limit fight less catastrophic," Politico's Jake Sherman reports. They're "also eyeing several bills to hike the debt cap with different budgetary reforms — those bills might hit the floor as soon as May." This kind of planning is meant to prevent a last-minute crisis. Sherman reports:
“That’s an extreme escape valve,” said GOP Policy Chairman James Lankford of Oklahoma. “It’s not a solution. That’s if we get to the spot without resolution, we have something to back us up. That’s an early, not late, thing. If you do that at the last minute, you panic the bond market.”
That's a big change from 2011, when people like Michele Bachmann were claiming there would be few consequences of blowing past the debt ceiling. If this is what the new Tea Party GOP looks like, then Tea Party has a very different meaning.