I've been getting a lot of questions from students and reporters about what to make of the Tea Party. Fareed Zakaria had a whole panel on the topic this morning, which included some interesting discussions on the role of racism in the movement and its similarity to other populist movements in the nation's past.
One thing I rarely hear mentioned, though, is the link between the Tea Party movement and the 2008 election. To me, the former cannot exist without the latter. That is, the Tea Party is a response by conservative activists to decisions made by the formal Republican Party in 2008. John McCain, we must remember, was neither loved nor trusted by conservatives going into 2008. His nomination only occurred because conservatives could not agree on a champion: Huckabee was squishy on taxes, Thompson was lousy on the stump, Giuliani was soft on cultural issues, Romney was maybe not quite a Christian, etc. The only thing conservative activists could agree on was that they distrusted McCain, but that wasn't enough to prevent his nomination.
In the end, conservative activists sucked it up and backed McCain. They were reassured by party leaders that he was the best they could do in a tough year. And guess what? He lost anyway. By a considerable margin. To a liberal, northern, urban black guy with a Muslim name.
When parties endure a substantial repudiation at the polls, they tend to go through some sort of soul-searching, which sometimes manifests through divisive primaries. The fact that the "anti-incumbent" trend during the 2010 primaries seemed to occur almost exclusively within the Republican Party suggests that the GOP is going through this sort of internal debate right now. They are struggling to determine what exactly it means to be a Republican. On one side you have establishment types like Karl Rove who say that if you nominate unqualified extremists, you'll lose elections. On the other you have hardcore activists who say, look, we tried it your way in 2008 and we lost anyway. Let's try standing for something and see what happens.