The biggest casualty of the months-long budget battle, new survey numbers suggest, is the reputation of the movement that infiltrated Washington last November swearing to reform it. As Congress was preparing to recess last week, several lawmakers closely tied to the tea party seemed to be trying to distance themselves from the brand.
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In a CBS News/New York Times poll released on Thursday, 43 percent of those responding said the tea party has too much influence on the Republican Party. Other numbers from the poll of 960 adults, conducted earlier this week, underscored the public's disillusion with the conservative insurgency: 40 percent had an unfavorable view of the movement, up from 29 percent in April. The percentage who identify themselves as tea party supporters -- which hit a high of 31 percent last November -- dropped to 18 percent.
Perhaps most jarring is the sign that conservatives' enthusiasm for the movement is flagging: The percentage of Republicans who said they have a favorable view of the movement has dropped 18 points in the last four months, from 59 percent in April to 41 percent now.
Anyone seeking living, breathing proof of this shift need look no further than Capitol Hill. Just minutes after casting his “nay” vote on Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., regarded by some tea party activists as a rock star of the movement, offered a sharp retort when asked why senators linked to the tea party didn’t pull out the stops by filibustering to block passage of the bill. “I don’t speak for the tea party,” Rubio said, then amended: “Well, what is the tea party?”
That’s a good question, said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., whose veteran status on Capitol Hill—and financial backing of conservative insurgent candidates—made him something of a godfather of the movement.
“I’m a little impatient with the media talking about ‘the tea party,’” DeMint said. “ ‘The tea party’ didn’t win anything; these are thousands of citizen groups who usually unite around fiscal issues but never have just one voice.”
But the attempt to pigeonhole what began as a decentralized grassroots movement is as old as the tea party itself. On Tuesday, conservative political strategist Keith Appell issued a press release lamenting the various epithets that have been applied to the tea party, including “Astroturf,” “angry mob,” “racist,” and even “terrorist.” Meanwhile, exponentially decreasing turnouts at tea party rallies have generated speculation that the movement has lost its initial impact.
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Activists and political action committees within the tea party acknowledge the movement's image problem.
“We’ll go to events, and there are younger people who when you say ‘tea party,’ get turned off,” said Adam Brandon, vice president of former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks group, which helped catapult many tea party dark horses to Congress in 2010. “It becomes a problem when you have an identity and don’t get to the issues. I mean, we don’t like how The New York Times capitalizes the ‘T’ and ‘P’ of the tea party. It’s a movement, not an actual party.”
Even so, Democrats – and some Republicans, Brandon noted – have driven home the message that the drawn-out standstill over raising the debt ceiling was the fault of tea party intransigence. In an interview with a Nevada television station this week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused “the tea party-driven House of Representatives” of attempting “to bring the government down.”
Levi Russell, spokesman for the Tea Party Express, decried what seems to be an organized counteroffensive from the left. “The fallout from this budget battle is remarkable in the consistency of attacks,” he said. “It looks like everyone on the left got the same memo: that conservatives are holding guns to the heads of Republican members [of Congress]. It’s become Democrats’ favorite talking point.”
FreedomWorks's Brandon shrugged off the attacks as the cost of making an impact. “You see the same thing when a front-runner emerges in an election; they get targeted,” he said. “You’re not going to make it out of that without some battle wounds.”
Brandon said his group is “experimenting” with ways to surmount the image problem, but suggested it might best be solved if the tea party achieves its original goal. “We always hoped for a hostile takeover of the Republican Party,” Brandon said, “so that someday you’re not ‘the tea party’ versus ‘Republicans,’ you’re just the fiscally conservative base of the party.”
DeMint revealed a certain sensitivity to how the tea party is perceived. Explaining why he did not filibuster the debt-ceiling deal, despite his disappointment with the package, he said, “If we had done that, then you guys in the media would have concluded what you want to conclude: that we are just trying to just obstruct the whole process, when that’s not what we’ve done.”
“That’s the way they try to marginalize you: If you’re not for the grand deal, you’re a right-wing nut,” DeMint said.
For members of Congress who choose to do so, shying away from that image isn’t going to jeopardize their standing within the movement, Russell said. “They know they’re going to be judged on how they vote, not the label they identify with. That’s what the tea party’s going to judge you for – not whether you’re a cheerleader for them.”
If standing firm on principle during the budget debate cost the tea party its name brand, the result was worth it, Brandon added.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to raise the debt ceiling again without a battle; that could be the longest-lasting legacy of the entire movement,” he said. “And if we’ve changed the course of conversation in Washington, then we’re happy. That’s what we set out to do.”