For awhile, after it roared into existence two years ago, the Tea Party tried to portray itself as a movement of rugged American individualists.
Tea Partiers, said their organizers, were aligned with no party and comprised secular and religious voters, as well as Democrats and Republicans. The only requisite for membership, said Tea Party leaders, was love of country and common sense.
Well, that pretense has pretty much evaporated, especially now that the White House is in play again.
Tea Partiers vote overwhelmingly Republican and they have set out to transform the GOP into a far-right, Christian-tinged party, advocating an absolutism that is actually as far from American mainstream as socialism, the philosophy they abjure above all.
They have had their successes. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives last year was at least in part attributable to Tea Party activism. Several dozen of the 93 House freshmen would appear to be comfortable marching around with flutes, drums and muskets, the formal dress code at any Tea Party gathering.
Nowadays, though, the Tea Party seems determined to pursue tactics more likely to inflict loss than success.
Tea Party Republicans were the ones who distinguished themselves in August by openly considering the possibility of defaulting on America's national debt, an assertion so idiotic it helped earn the U.S. a credit downgrade.
And now, in the quest for ideological purity, Tea Partiers may be in the process of denying their party the White House in 2012, a prize that — given Barack Obama's performance lately — actually seems quite attainable.
In the words of political maven Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Centre for Politics, President Obama is looking "surprisingly beatable" right now.
Unemployment, which Obama once predicted would not rise above eight per cent, has been stuck between nine and 10 per cent for two years, occasionally rising even above 10.
What's more, the president's efforts to govern by consensus have been met by contempt and ridicule by congressional Republicans, making Obama look like the guy who keeps bringing a knife to gunfights.
At the same time, his eagerness to compromise in the face of Rebublican intractability has angered his own party.
Reaching hard for common ground, he has offered to cut Medicare and Medicaid, programs that amount to Democratic sacraments. He has not only extended the Bush tax cuts, he's added tax cuts of his own, after promising during the election to make the rich pay a fairer share.
He's also widely perceived to have botched the negotiations to raise the federal debt ceiling last summer, repeatedly offering climbdowns as Republicans refused to budge.
When he tried out the "Yes, We Can!" at political rallies this past week, the old applause line was enough to make you wince.
As Sabato has repeatedly pointed out, Republicans could most effectively exploit Obama's weaknesses by choosing a fiscal conservative with a deep pragmatic streak — someone who would appeal to the prized independent voters who will ultimately decide the 2012 contest.
But, as John Belushi used to say on Saturday Night Live: "No-o-o-o-o-o-o-ooooooo."
Tea Partiers, in particular, have dedicated themselves to taking down those Republican moderates seeking the party's nomination, principally Mitt Romney, one of the most electable candidates in the field.
To Tea Partiers, Romney is a hated "RINO" — Republican In Name Only — and therefore practically qualifies as a political enemy. Ditto Jon Huntsman, the elegant ex-diplomat who has tried to position himself as the voice of reason.
Instead, the party's active grassroots flocked to Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who has said that Barack Obama is a socialist with anti-American views. (She also dismisses global warming and the theory of evolution, says homosexuality is a mental disorder, and sponsored legislation to prevent the U.S. dollar from being replaced by a foreign currency.)
Bachmann didn't ride the wave long, though. Almost as soon as Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his run, Bachmann was yesterday's bagels.
Perry is a handsome, down-home, pistol-packing Texan who leads evangelical prayer revivals, considers Social Security "a Ponzi scheme" and wants to shrink the federal government drastically.
But he stumbled badly in all-candidates debates this past week ("threw up all over himself," in the words of a Fox News analyst), and the closer Tea Partiers looked at him, the more suspicious they became.
Perry once approved a law granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who were brought to Texas as children, arguing that to deny them an education would be "heartless." So he's now seen as soft on immigration.
He also signed an executive order requiring adolescent female students to be inoculated against HPV (human papillomavirus), which can lead to cervical cancer. Meaning he mounted a government attack on innocent girls.
And he ran the Texas Enterprise Fund, which uses tax dollars to seed promising small businesses. Socialism, in other words. Only in a Tea Party world would Rick Perry be a socialist.
So, on Saturday, Florida Republicans voted overwhelmingly in that state's straw poll for Herman Cain, a pizza tycoon who, until now, was a virtual unknown. And who still remains one.
Meanwhile, Tea Partiers show up at GOP all-candidates debates, some in full colonial garb, hooting and hollering and generally making spectacles of themselves.
On one occasion, when a moderator began a question by noting the staggering number of executions in Texas, they applauded loudly.
When a questioner asked whether a sick hospital patient without insurance should be allowed to die, some of them shouted "Yeah!"
And when a gay soldier appeared via satellite asking whether candidates would repeal the military's recent acceptance of homosexual troops, some in the crowd booed.
Booing a soldier on active duty was too much for even Rick Santorum, the militant Roman Catholic ex-senator who has been a favourite target of gay rights groups for years.
The net result of all this yahooing is predictable enough: The Republican establishment now is desperately seeking an electable candidate.
But stalwarts, such as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, renowned for his pragmatic conservatism, have repeatedly said no. So has Chris Christie, the popular governor of New Jersey. Most likely, neither man wants to jump into the freak show.
And in the White House, where there hasn't been much to smile about these days, one suspects the Tea Party provides what little cheer there is to be had.