Mitch McConnell didn't like the Tea Party from the get go. He is a strategist -- a chess player. You could tell from the start that the Senate minority leader saw no upside whatsoever in having the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan represented by idiots like Christine O'Donnell, borderline personalities like Sharron Angle, or know-nothings like Rand Paul. But, ever being that strategist, he also realized that the Tea Party was poised to have a good run for a couple years. So he never got fully on board with them, but he did make room for them, and he carried some of their water when he had to.
But his days of carrying water for the Tea Party are officially over now. Because the Tea Party itself is officially over. Mitch McConnell has been a leader among Republicans for a long time. Now, apparently, he has decided to actually do some leading.
The Tea Party has vanished as a viable political force. There are no more huge Tea Party rallies. That part of the movement, the people part, got shut down by Republican political operatives to stop the flood of embarrassing headlines and laughing-stock YouTube clips. The Tea Party candidates who swept into office in 2010 have completely ignored the needs of the nation, opting instead to focus on juvenile political games. In the process, they have created governance disaster after governance disaster in our greatest time of need, left their supporters demoralized, left the public perception of Congress in tatters, and harmed the American people and the American nation.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Mitt Romney, the penultimate old-school, "It's my turn" Republican candidate for President, has absolutely mopped the floor with every Tea Party-ish candidate he's faced, from Michele Bachmann, to Herman Cain, to Newt Gingrich to, oh come on, you know it's going to happen, Ron Paul. By mopped the floor I mean, of course, survived their challenges in the Iowa silly-season unscathed while they have roared and then flamed out, one after the other. The entire Tea Party movement has proven completely impotent to stop an entitled, Republican, establishment candidate.
The last vestige of Tea Partyanism seems to be the 2010 class of Republicans in the House of Representatives. But even they are now realizing what others have seen for a while -- that they have power only to the degree that establishment Republicans like Mitch McConnell allow them to have power.
To the degree that establishment Republicans enforce party unity and hold the troops together in support of whatever hair-brained tactical blunders come out of the Tea Party caucus, the TP'ers can get their way. But at the point the establishment frees the rest of the party to vote their conscience, or their local political expediency, it only takes a handful or Republicans to sign onto any bill Democrats have been cajoled into supporting to completely strip the Tea Party of its power.
The refusal, in fact, of Mitch McConnell to allow Republicans to vote their conscience, or in their own political interests, or in the interests of the nation for that matter, was the only thing that made it possible for the Tea Party wing to threaten a government shut down earlier in the year, to damage the Republican brand (and the US credit rating along with it) with the debt ceiling fight last summer, or to attempt this latest fiasco.
But enough is enough. McConnell has always been a shrewd political operative. He knows full well the damage the Tea Party has done to the Republican brand this year. And he knows that his power is now, once again, greater than theirs. He has survived their onslaught. And with this latest fiasco with the payroll tax extension, he has shown that they are no longer a threat to him, and he can make or break their follies as he pleases.
And he's also shown Speaker of the House John Boehner that if he doesn't rise to the challenge of leadership, he will make or break him too, as he pleases.
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