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Blow taps for the tea party

Posted: December 8, 2011 8:21 a.m.
Updated: December 9, 2011 5:00 a.m.

If history tells us anything, the rise of sometime-historian Newt Gingrich to Republican presidential frontrunner is a sign that the tea party movement is destroying itself.

After all, the former House Speaker has surged to the top of Republican presidential polls on the shoulders of tea party supporters, a movement that ironically came together to topple "Washington insiders" -- like Newt Gingrich.

The tea party movement rose up angrily in early 2009 to expose and clean out what its members saw as the greedy Washington fat cats and wheeler-dealers who line their pockets while raising taxes, expanding government and spending taxpayers' money.

Now, less than a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the movement has become a faction of the party whose front runners are Mitt Romney, who the right largely rejects as as too moderate and flippy-floppy, and Gingrich, the quintessential Washington insider.

After all, this is a man who has earned millions by doing precisely what the Tea Party rages against: advising, promoting and lobbying for big corporate and public policy interests.

That includes at least $1.6 million he was paid by Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored enterprise that many conservatives scapegoat for the financial crisis, to help its efforts to block new congressional regulations it didn't want.

Yet fiscal conservatives appear to be putting all that aside in the way many social conservatives are looking past his two divorces or his ethical challenges, including his historical status as the only House speaker to be penalized $300,000 for ethics violations.

No, what's left of the tea party insurgency appears to be willing to look past Gingrich's shortcomings in pursuit of a bigger prize, the defeat of President Obama -- after defeating Mitt Romney.

One reason for Gingrich's rise: the tea party and the Grand Old Party have been looking for strong, sure-footed leadership, and no one's feet are more sure than Newt's. Gingrich provides leadership the tea party appears to need: someone who can tell a movement what they are for when they only know what they are against.

After all, the teas rose to fill a political gap. The Republican establishment was in disarray, devoid of leaders and intimidated after President Barack Obama's election landslide. The teas fired up town halls, seized the national conversation, helped bring a halt to bipartisan compromise in Congress and helped Republicans regain their House majority, among other victories in the 2010 midterms.

If ever there was a time for the ambitious Newt to make his move, I thought back when he announced his candidacy, this was it. The right was energized and the left, in those pre-Occupy days, was demoralized. Many were waiting for Obama to show the sort of tough, line-in-the-sand decisiveness he finally has begun to show in recent weeks.

But Gingrich had a problem. He was even more of a Washington insider than Mitt Romney, the GOP establishment favorite, at a time when the party's tea party-energized base was looking for outsiders. Washington experience became a deal-breaker; feisty amateurism, a virtue. In a spectacle about as deliberative as "American Idol" auditions, GOP voters flirted with Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain -- anybody but Mitt.

And now Newt. Gingrich suddenly riding high on a wave kicked up by his own confidently quick-witted and media-bashing debate performances and by Herman Cain's stumbles and subsequent exit. Suddenly Gingrich is tying or beating Romney in national polls. In Florida, a key early primary state, Gingrich took a 31-point lead over Romney in a Florida Times-Union poll this past week.

Of course, Gingrich could be toppled as the latest GOP flavor-of-the-month, but this close to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the timing of his return from the political grave could hardly be more fortunate.

But what does Gingrich's rise say about the tea party movement? Are they selling out or buying in? Probably some of both. In that way, they're beginning to look a lot like other conservative Republicans. In other words, business as usual.

So long, tea party. The name remains, but the spirit is fading.

(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to cpage@tribune.com.)

 

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