It's instructive to remember that when the Tea Party first began to gather steam, the name referred to a "party" in the celebration sense – the Boston Tea Party, specifically: an event of planned chaos, a protest that masqueraded as an Indian attack. Over time, the name has lost its punny puckishness much as the movement has steadily shifted from a proudly anacharical – even populist – response and rebellion within the GOP to a smoothly functioning alternative to it.
The government shutdown proved that attempts by the GOP establishment to co-opt the Tea Party as a source of energy just created a network of political sleeper agents. With its own mechanism for drafting (and supporting) candidates, its own agenda, and its own media eco-system, the Tea Party is a third party by almost any criteria but ballot affiliation – and leadership.
The absence of any official organizational structure might be one reason the Tea Party has remained so lively despite a terrible national reputation and negligible policy achievements.
When something goes wrong, those identified with the failure fade for a time and the attention of Tea Party-identified voters shifts smoothly to someone else. There's also no demand for positive policy victories or signature legislation: no one has to win a debate, just spoil the outcome.
Thus it's no surprise that Ted Cruz is the current face of the Tea Party: All his achievements are proudly in the negative, all his goals are set resolutely in the past.
But the Tea Party's fickle and hive-like nature virtually demands that Cruz cycle out of the spotlight eventually. He will either fail to stop something from happening or, perhaps worse, accidently cause something to get done.
For when that happens: here's a look at some of the Tea Party's once and perhaps future leaders.
The don't-call-them comebacks: politicians and activists who've tasted Tea Party's adoration and haven't given up on a second sip. These are primarily hacks who clawed their way on stage at some point and are now biding their time in minor-media purgatory with the hope that they'll be able to fake-controversy themselves into relevance once more.
Herman Cain: the one-time front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination sputtered into the national conversation just this week, asserting the accusations of sexual harassment that sealed the end of his campaign were the work of "a force bigger than right": the Devil. He is an aggressive and peppy Twitter user and turns up on Fox Business to predict disaster on a regular basis.
Former Congressman Allen West (Florida): the former congressman who compared the Democrats to Josef Goebbles and worried about Obama supports being a "threat to the gene pool" last month left his post as the director of programming for the conservative news aggregator Pajamas Media under allegations of anti-Semitism. He claimed that he was moving on voluntarily "to pursue political aspirations." So keep an eye out.
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Minnesota): she's leaving Congress even as an ethics investigation against her continues; if she is seeking a quieter life you wouldn't know it by the bombs she keeps throwing: In the last month, she proclaimed the government reopening to be "a very sad day" and said that Obama's presidency was a sign of the end of the world. Miley Cyrus played her in an SNL sketch.
Congressman Paul Ryan (Wisconsin): former vice-presidential candidate currently in some kind of witness protection program, but he did manage to smuggle out a Wall Street Journal op-ed that was mostly ignored. He's in a gym somewhere, waiting. Waiting.
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