Santorum's Exit Shows the Tea Party's Limit

Badges for sale at a Tea Party rally in Manchester, NH Photograph by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Rick Santorum’s decision to quit the presidential race on Tuesday clarifies a number of things. Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. The general election race will be closer than it otherwise would have been. And for the second cycle in a row, the conservative activists who make up the GOP’s base are going to get stiffed—they’ll be forced to reconcile themselves to a nominee whom many dislike.

This is not how the 2012 Republican primary was supposed to unfold. When the race unofficially got under way 18 months ago, the Tea Party was at the peak of its influence, having just handed Republicans control of the House of Representatives. The GOP presidential field was scrambling to appeal to the party’s new source of power, which looked like it might determine the identity of the next nominee. Candidates such as Tim Pawlenty—a pleasant, competent technocrat during his two terms as governor of Minnesota—awkwardly recast themselves as fire-breathing deficit warriors in an effort to get a leg up.

Romney never did, and in hindsight that has proved a wise decision (although awkward recastings hold a particular danger for him). For all the clamor and attention that rose up around the Tea Party, its lasting influence was plainly exaggerated. Santorum’s exit underscores the fact that a lot less has changed in national politics than anyone who picked up a newspaper or tuned in to cable news over the past two years might suppose. Four years after settling for John McCain, Republicans are about to settle for Mitt Romney.

It would also be wrong to write off the Tea Party’s influence altogether. Washington’s fixation on deficits these past two years, even as the ailing economy was in need of further support, is testimony to its supporters’ ability to bend the nation’s attention toward their goals. It’s unlikely, for example, that the $2.1 trillion in deficit savings signed into law last summer as the Budget Control Act would ever have been imposed absent intense grassroots pressure.

Contrary to popular perception, even the recent return of such social issues as contraception owes some debt to the Tea Party. Although the Tea Party is best known for its libertarian economic views, an analysis last year by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that Tea Party supporters also hold strongly conservative opinions about issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Despite their abundance of passion and flair for political theater, these activists ultimately lacked the necessary skills to make one of their own the Republican nominee. From Donald Trump to Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain to Rick Perry, and finally to Santorum, none of the Tea Party-anointed presidential candidates lasted very long or showed much capacity for being a serious national leader.

Although the primary rules disfavored Romney and drew out the process in ways that magnified his weaknesses, his strong organizational skills and ability to raise money let him wear down his rivals, many of whom—OK, let’s be honest, all of whom—elicited considerably more passion from the activist base. In the end, it wasn’t the new grassroots enthusiasm but the sober, insider competence the enthusiasm had supposedly displaced that decided the Republican nominee.

This has been evident for a while, although it took Santorum’s departure to drive the point home. As a consequence, Tea Party influence is waning. The Democrats’ recent success in extending the payroll tax deduction without making offsetting cuts is one example. The House Republicans’ new budget, not nearly so radical as last year’s, is another. So is that budget’s attempt to quietly undo some of the cuts in last summer’s deficit bill—a maneuver that might not have stood a chance a year ago.

Still, such backsliding has been limited, and Republicans are oriented almost exclusively toward spending cuts. What now seems clear is that the Tea Party isn’t strong enough or savvy enough to put someone in the White House. But at least for now, its supporters have enough strength to drive the party establishment to the right of where it once was, and might prefer to be, and prevent the kind of dealmaking that was always still possible in earlier periods of partisan antagonism.

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