As the election results began reaching the White House, the young president found himself shaken. How could this unknown Republican win election in one of the last great bastions of progressive politics? How could it be that not so long before, it was the president's own party that had been carried to power by a wave of public discontent similar to the one that now threatened to destroy his ambitious health-care plans?
Those questions surely haunted Bill Clinton throughout the long night of Nov. 8, 1994, when the same Minnesota voters who had given the 42nd president a landslide victory in 1992 decided to send a hard-charging conservative named Rod Grams to the U.S. Senate just two years later. Scores of Republicans across the country shared Grams's good political fortune by promising—like Massachusetts miracle man Scott Brown—to stop a White House that voters believed to be too liberal, too out of touch, and too obsessed with Washington-run health care.
The political coalition that carried Republicans to victory over Clinton's Democratic Party was a collection of restless voters inspired by one of the most mercurial presidential campaigns in U.S. history. H. Ross Perot's "United We Stand" organization was formed as a result of the Texas billionaire's 1992 campaign. The quirky populist cobbled together an unlikely confederation of blue-collar workers, disaffected union members, devout Christians, gun-rights activists, talk-radio fans, retired military veterans, pro-life families, nervous deficit hawks, aging John Birchers, and an eclectic assortment of disaffected voters who saw the federal government as the enemy.
While reporting on last summer's health-care town-hall meetings, I recognized many of those familiar faces in the crowds. Among the protesters were veterans, deeply suspicious of the young liberal president and embittered, ironically, by Congress's failure to keep its promise to give them government-run health care for life. Also in attendance were gun-rights activists, who believed that their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was being put at risk by Barack Obama. And in those throngs I also saw the faces of talk-show fans, pushed into action by the apocalyptic warnings of personalities like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Those two right-wing talkers had spent the past year telling listeners that the Democratic president was a racist who somehow managed to find the time also to be a Nazi and a communist.
But if the tea-party protests produced their share of histrionics from the right, they also brought out the worst in progressive elites. As the grassroots movement was gaining traction across America, liberal columnists and commentators ridiculed the new political movement as a collection of racists, reactionaries, and uneducated buffoons. Instead of recognizing these nationwide protests for what they were—a potent sign of public discontent—too many liberals became more contemptuous as the tea-party movement grew. On ABC's This Week, The Nation's editor Katrina vanden Heuvel dismissed the movement's members as clueless "teabaggers," even as tea-party members were skillfully organizing a winning Senate campaign in Massachusetts.
A few Democrats understood the importance of the tea-party groups long before the Obama White House or its allies in the media. San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom, issued a warning to fellow Democrats before Martha Coakley's loss in Massachusetts. "There's a real intensity and fervor out there, as represented by the tea party, that we're belittling," Newsom told the San Francisco Chronicle. "This is real. At our own peril, we dismiss these tea parties as some sort of isolated extremism. It is not."
If the Democrats—and the White House—weren't listening before, they certainly are now. Indeed, one week after Scott Brown's election, the tea-party movement should be celebrating its Massachusetts miracle, the collapse of health-care reform, and the destruction of the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority.
But oddly, the movement's leaders aren't doing that. Instead, at the very moment the tea party has proved it is an undeniable political force that must be taken seriously, it is at risk of tearing itself apart.
Attempts to organize an upcoming National Tea Party Convention—with Sarah Palin as keynote speaker—have led to threats of lawsuits and counterconventions across the country. Erick Erickson, one of the conservative movement's most prominent bloggers, dismissed the event as a money-making scam. Even the stunning election of a Republican to Teddy Kennedy's seat only seemed to create deeper divisions in an already fractious movement. The man who serves both as the tea party's spiritual leader and carnival barker, Glenn Beck, spent the morning after Scott Brown's victory sounding very much like a man who would just as soon undermine the party as he would share the spotlight with Washington's newest star.
The Fox News host used his TV and radio shows to launch vicious verbal attacks on the newly elected senator. "I want a chastity belt on this man," Beck laughingly said the morning after Brown's epic victory over Democrat Martha Coakley. "I want his every move watched in Washington. I don't trust this guy. This one could end with a dead intern." Just in case the audience had somehow missed his suggestion that Brown was capable of having an affair with, and then murdering, a female intern, Beck repeated the line.
What is going on here? Why are the tea partyers turning on their own? Like any nascent populist movement, the tea party was born of deep skepticism and dissatisfaction with the status quo. As it turns out, many of its most passionate and vocal members seem just as mistrusting of each other as they are of the federal government. This is one reason we have been stuck with two dominant political parties for so long: creating durable political institutions is hard. Most—like Perot's populist wave in the 1990s—fail in their infancy. Riven with internal conflicts and lacking a coherent structure, the tea party's biggest challenge may be trying to deal with its own success. Victories are sure to lie ahead for the group in this fall's midterm elections. After all, without Obama on the ticket, those who vote will be older, whiter, and fewer in number than they were in 2008. And that will likely be bad news for Democratic candidates who were swept into Republican-leaning seats during George W. Bush's disastrous second term.
The more important question for the populist movement may be whether this loosely organized political phenomenon can remain intact long enough to challenge a two-party system that has dominated American politics since George Washington rode off to Mount Vernon to live out his final years. If history is any guide, the prospects of long-term success are as unlikely as a Republican winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts.