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Whatever happened to the Tea Party? It died last night

Tea Party activists rallying in front of the US Capitol in Washington in 2013.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/File

Whatever was left of the Tea Party movement died overnight.

Dr. Rand Paul, a Kentucky senator, tried to give it CPR, personally shutting down the federal government for a few hours by taking the floor and delaying a vote on the budget deal.

His point was that he and other Republicans were elected to Washington, during the era of Democratic president Barack Obama, with the promise that they would keep government spending in check and shake up Washington enough that it would return to creating a budget the old-fashioned way: going through it meticulously, department by department.

The proposed bipartisan resolution to keep the government open gave Republicans more money for defense and Democrats more money for a host of other programs. What’s worse for Paul was that all of it was done at the last minute, behind closed doors, and most members of Congress had no way to read and understand all 600-plus pages.

Paul’s filibuster Thursday night ended up just being the eulogy for the Tea Party. The Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the huge spending package, despite the fact that it will bloat the national debt. President Trump, who ran a campaign promising to radically reduce the debt, signed the bill around the time federal workers showed up to clock in for another Friday.


The Tea Party movement began in 2009 and rose to its height during the 2010 midterm elections that swept Republicans into power on Capitol Hill. (Scott Brown’s upset victory in January 2010 in the US Senate special election in Massachusetts was a harbinger of Tea Party successes that fall.)

The decentralized movement had different manifestations. For some followers, it was mainly about repealing Obamacare. Some Southern chapters were more about social conservatism. Observers of the movement detected some racist overtones.

But the overarching theme connecting the movement from New England to the Bible Belt to the West was the idea that the government was spending too much. Obama’s stimulus spending proposals and his bailout of the auto industry drove them into a frenzy.


The Tea Party challenged the Republican establishment in primaries and won. The majority of Republican members of Congress today were elected after the Tea Party movement began, and most of them ran catering to it.

Now, many of those who raged against the spending machine, including Texas Senator Ted Cruz, have voted to make that machine even bigger.

Paul made these points repeatedly during his filibuster. He said many of his colleagues had told him privately they agreed with what he did and that it was the last time they would agree to vote in this way for this kind of bill. But, as Paul noted, they also told him the same thing three weeks ago when they voted in a similar fashion.

Publicly, the Republican leadership seemed authentically peeved at Paul for his stunt. South Dakota Senator John Thune and Texas Senator John Cornyn each called it a “waste of time.”

“He’s tilting at windmills. Don Quixote, you know,” Alabama Senator Richard Shelby said.

Some Tea Party supporters might feel betrayed by the leaders who used them to get into power and then broke their promises.

There is a deeper truth here, however. For decades, the hardcore right in this country hasn’t been about specific policies or a particular spending level, but a feeling of grievance that is wrapped up in culture, economics, and demographics.


Many of those who backed the Tea Party movement didn’t do it because they were (T)axed (E)nough (A)lready but because they were practicing their own identity politics.

No politician has spoken more for that aggrieved group than Trump. And if the deal to keep open the government was good enough for Trump, then maybe it will be good enough for them — and they will stick with him even though their Tea Party is over.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp