Neil Macdonald: The dismantling of the Tea Party

The Tea Party was an angry national spectacle with the added value of being politically relevant in the early years of Obama's presidency. But it is now sliding into oblivion while being quietly turfed from Republican backrooms, Neil Macdonald writes.

I miss the Tea Party already.

I miss the pot-bellied guys in tricorne hats waving around muskets (or, sometimes, assault rifles), demanding dramatic cuts in government spending, except for spending that benefited them, which, given their age and physical condition, was most government spending.

I miss all the warnings about official communism and posters of Barack HUSSEIN Obama with a Hitler moustache (although I could never quite understand the conflation of Hitler and communism) and the speeches about how the government wants to confiscate your guns and surrender to the United Nations.

The Tea Party was an angry national spectacle that had the added value of being politically relevant and highly newsworthy, at least in its early days, after Obama first took office back in 2009.

At one point, a majority of Americans told pollsters they either agreed with the Tea Party, or sympathized with its agenda, just as, a year or so later, they agreed with its left-wing doppelganger, the Occupy Wall Street movement.

But the Tea Partiers, like the Occupiers, are now sliding into oblivion.

The original appeal of the two movements had much in common. Both arose out of public disgust with the government's rescue of Wall Street's gamblers, and its attempted rescue of over-mortgaged homeowners at a time when most Americans were watching their jobs and savings shrivel.

And both movements eventually developed extreme agendas.

The difference was that one of the two, the Tea Party, attached itself to a political party, the Republicans, who are now trying to disentangle themselves from their zealous, contrarian dance partner.

Trying to "walk it back," as they say in Washington.

Bluster boys

Looking back at the election, it is clear that some of the more extremist Tea Party candidates were principally responsible for keeping the U.S. Senate in Democratic hands.

Republican House Leader John Boehner knows he really won in November. (Associated Press)

Had it not been for vigorous gerrymandering by Republican-controlled state legislatures, Republicans would have lost the House of Representatives, too.

Democrats won the national popular vote in House races, but Republicans kept their majority and Republican Speaker John Boehner his job, thanks largely to "redistricting," as it is called here.

And while Barack Obama was probably beatable because of the economy, he won the White House in part because Republicans, pushed by Tea Partiers for two years, struck independent voters as too extreme.

So when Speaker Boehner publicly calls November's vote a "status quo election," saying nothing has changed between Congress and the White House, he's blustering, and he knows it.

Privately, he's also trying to restore the order of things within his own party.

Famously humiliated, in the summer of 2011, by freshman right-wingers who preferred the possibility of a national default to raising the debt ceiling, Boehner is now instructing his stubborn congressional charges on the realities of power.

And while the Tea Partiers are still mustered for revolution, they're clearly cowed by the results of Nov. 6, and are either toeing the line or shutting their mouths.

Four who refused to fall into line — Tim Huelskamp, Justin Amash, Walter Jones, and David Schweikert — have been kicked off influential committee positions.

In addition, in the negotiations to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, Boehner is now advocating raising revenue by eliminating tax loopholes and certain deductions — something Tea Party rank-and-filers regard, quite correctly, as tax increases.

They're furious about it, but their angry petitions hit the recycling bin as soon as they arrive in Washington.

Also for the shredder

Taxes aren't the only thing being reconsidered today in Republican circles.

Suddenly, the GOP has adopted a kinder official view toward the 11-million-plus people, mostly Hispanics, who are in this country illegally, doing the scut work Americans disdain.

Senior Republicans, desperate for a share of the fast-growing Latino vote, are now proposing "a path to citizenship" for these illegal workers, something Tea Partiers regard as amnesty, a word that Republican candidates have been terrified to utter for years.

As for gay marriage, polls indicate more and more Americans don't care who marries whom, and that most heterosexuals don't feel their own marriages would be threatened if gay people tied the knot.

Happily for the Republican leadership, the Supreme Court has now agreed to consider the issue, which means Boehner and company can make a few speeches about "judicial activism" and move on.

Abortion? Fuggedaboutit.

It was GOP musings about "legitimate rape" and pregnancy from rape being "God's will" that cost the Senate seats in Indiana and Missouri.

What is it with the snake flag? A Tea Party activist leads the charge against Obamacare on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in July. Unfortunately for him, the court backed the president's plan. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

American women are none too keen on moral dictation from male legislators, particularly those who tend to deliver disquisitions on the workings of the female body.

But the real Tea Party miscalculation was pushing Americans to embrace something they may want in principle, but not in reality — small government.

This is a nation that loves its entitlements: its government subsidies, its Medicare, its social security, its mortgage interest deductions.

Threaten those things and you pay the price. And realizing this now, Tea Party kingpins are moving on.

Senator Jim DeMint, the South Carolina senator who ran an effort to target RINOS (Republicans in Name Only) as he sneeringly calls his party's moderates, has abruptly resigned to run a Washington think-tank.

Former representative Dick Armey has just left Freedom Works, one of the biggest Tea Party organizations in America, reportedly with a very un-Tea Partyish severance of $8 million.

Michelle Bachmann, the Minnesota representative who founded the congressional Tea Party caucus, and nearly lost her seat last month, is suddenly keeping her mouth shut.

Sarah Palin, once the Tea Party queen, cashed in on her fame and is now seen only occasionally on Fox News, where hardliners can still come to reinforce their dreams of what America should be.

Jenny Beth Martin, the Tea Party organizer once regarded as one of the most powerful women in America, now accuses the Republican establishment of waging "all-out war" on her members.

But all of this has to be seen as sensible politics: the party listened to what voters told them and is responding. It's how democracy is supposed to work.

Still, I miss the big rallies, and the flags with coiled snakes on them that proclaimed "Don't Tread on Me."

Everything is suddenly more serious now. And I miss the show.