As Washington Is Scandalized, The Tea Party Salivates

Beth Reinhard

The tea party is back.

Just months after President Obama's reelection deflated conservative activists, a slew of rapidly unfolding scandals involving government malfeasance is giving the movement new life.

Between the IRS targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny, the Justice Department’s seizure of journalists’ phone records, and allegations of a cover-up after the attacks in Benghazi, the tea party has been injected with momentum it hasn't seen since its heyday rallying against Obama’s health care law.

The movement had already begun rebounding from the November election with a string of successes. A 13-hour filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., raised nationwide awareness about potential abuses of executive power. The push to expand background checks on gun buyers failed under an antigovernment line of attack that a new law would lead to a federal registry. Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, the first governor to reject Obama’s economic stimulus money back in 2009, won election to Congress.

“This is a defining moment for our movement, and it will test us and the country to make change,” said Matt Kibbe, president and CEO of FreedomWorks. “Our social networks are on fire, and the intensity continues to build.”

Perhaps the tea party’s biggest victory in 2013 is not one that can be measured as succinctly as a law’s repeal or a candidate’s win. The swirl of Washington scandal offers the movement a kind of “I-told-you-so” bragging rights about the evils of government overreach that is frequently dismissed as conspiracy theories from the political fringe.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a criminal investigation into allegations that the IRS targeted groups with the names “tea party” and “patriot” seeking tax-exempt status.

“For years we’ve been expressing these concerns about big government and its abuse of power, and the IRS has proved our point,” said Kibbe, who called an emergency meeting Tuesday morning at his office to rally staff.  “Unfortunately it is vindication for us, and it demonstrated there should be real concerns among all Americans about giving the government too much discretionary power.”

The impact of a rejuvenated tea party could be far-reaching. It could thwart passage of immigration reform by inflaming skepticism about enforcement of the bill’s border security provisions. Tea party activists could reshape the 2014 elections and boost like-minded potential presidential candidates like Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas over GOP establishment rivals.

“We have an opportunity in 2014 to have the same impact we had in 2010,” said Amy Kremer, a leader of the California-based Tea Party Express. “When we drove the message in 2010 about fiscal discipline and free markets, it not only shocked the Democrats, it shocked Republicans. I think we have a huge opportunity now to get back to that message now that we’re not competing with presidential politics like we were in 2012.”

For Republican politicians seeking to shore up their tea-party credentials, the IRS scandal and Benghazi offer crowd-pleasing talking points, noted Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University professor of government and sociology and the co-author of The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism. Enter Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who was elected with tea-party support but is facing some resistance to his immigration plan. He quickly sought to capitalize on the IRS scandal with a fundraising appeal Tuesday from his Reclaim America political committee.

"If there ever was a time for conservatives to take a stand against an expanding federal government, it is now," read the Rubio e-mail. "With this issue, the very message of the Tea Party has been validated."

The IRS scandal could also reinvigorate the battle against Obama's health care law because the agency is charged with enforcing the law’s “individual mandate” to buy insurance. “If we can’t trust the IRS to play fair and by the rules, I don’t think we can trust them to enforce Obamacare,” said Megan Stiles, spokeswoman for the Campaign for Liberty, the tea-party group founded by former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

But Democrats caution that the tea party could get in the way of Republican victories at a time when some polls show the GOP is viewed as uncompromising and out of touch. The movement’s insistence on ideological purity has produced candidates such as Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock who triumphed in Republican primaries but faltered in the general election against more moderate, seasoned opponents.

“The tea party can really be doubled-edged sword for the GOP,” said Joshua Dorner, a spokesman for the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s better to have an energized base, but when the tea party is dragging the party to the right, it presents problems for party leadership trying to accomplish things in Congress and contributes to the party’s branding problems.”

For now, tea-party groups are expected to enjoy a surge in fundraising and interest. Activists are poised to confront members of Congress over the IRS and Benghazi attacks the way they did in 2009 over Obama’s health care law. “White House in Damage Control Mode as Scandals Pile Up,” declared the Tea Party News Network in an e-mail blast Tuesday afternoon.

“I think it’s time we get back out there on the streets,” Kremer said. “The movement has matured and grown, and the real work to effect change is done outside of rallies, but we need to keeping making sure our voices are heard.”