WASHINGTON — The Gadsden flag, which flew proudly over the 2010 midterm elections, now lies in tatters — rent by internal disagreements, losses among its most visible standard-bearers and a growing sense that the tea party movement, which once looked like it could transform American politics, will soon be nothing more than a blip in the country's collective memory.
The movement's journey from boom to bust is the story of American politics writ large. The tea party's ups and downs (in 2012, mostly downs) highlight some of the key forces shaping today's battles — from the fissures that threaten to destroy the Republican Party to the perils of a leaderless or multi-leader effort to the difference between proving a point and winning.
No one person more embodies the fruitful-turned-fractious relationship that the tea party has enjoyed with the political world (and itself) than the man whom the movement made speaker of the House after the 2010 elections: John Boehner.
Fueled by the grass-roots energy and, in some places, anger of tea party members, Republicans gained more than five dozen House seats in 2010, a sweep that put Boehner — an institutionalist's institutionalist — at the top of a GOP he didn't really recognize anymore.
For the first two years, Boehner was a SINO (Speaker in Name Only) as he regularly saw his legislative and political goals upended by the purists in his party who regarded compromise as capitulation. The debt-ceiling fight of 2011 was a sign of things to come for Boehner. The speaker engaged in long and serious talks with President Barack Obama aimed at not simply raising the country's debt limit but also addressing our long-term budget problems. But as it became clear that Boehner was going to have to give to get, the tea party crowd in the House, who saw the debt ceiling vote as a chance to tie the government's purse strings, made clear that they wouldn't be going along to get along.