The tea party rose to power as a band of outsiders, standing on a platform of 15 core beliefs that it calls “non-negotiable.” Among other things, the party demands a strong military, declares gun ownership to be “sacred,” eliminates special interests and shrinks government. It wants reduced taxes and spending, and, well, you can look it up.
Mainstream politicians were caught off-guard by the party's passion, energy and willingness to jump head-long into the process. Its impact on national politics was impressive.
But then tea party members engineered a shutdown of the federal government last year for 16 days and threatened default on this nation's debt and, well, what genius came up with that strategy?
The answer is in the fine print of the tea party philosophy: non-negotiable.
Hard-core members demand 100 percent of everything they propose, without compromise on even the smallest point. Guided by a sometimes curious interpretation of the Constitution, tea party members appeared to believe they had to destroy this country in order to save it.
If they were willing to shut down the government, I guess it was inevitable they wouldn't be satisfied with trying only to unseat Democrats. Last month in primary elections, tea party challengers went after the two most prominent Republicans in Congress: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Both incumbents faced opponents who argued they weren't conservative enough.
Well, those were fightin' words.
McConnell won the Republican primary in Kentucky by 25 points over tea party challenger Matt Bevin, who received backing from the tea-leaning Senate Conservatives Fund.
The story was the same in Ohio, where The Tea Party Leadership Fund spent more than $350,000 to defeat Boehner. He won easily.
Boehner and McConnell used a strategy that would have been unthinkable for Republicans a year or two ago: They pushed back, hard, and voters bought it.
The shutdown strategy earned a strong rebuke from Boehner, who told reporters, “They are misleading their followers. They are pushing their members in places they don't want to be and, frankly, I just think they have lost all credibility.”
Boehner nailed it. People who once might have supported tea party candidates — who are all Republicans — are backing away. It threatened to spill over into this fall's congressional elections, when Republicans hope to take control of the Senate.
Now, if the tea party considers John Boehner and Mitch McConnell insufficiently conservative, what kind of leader would they find acceptable?
That's a thought that keeps mainstream Republicans awake at night. They don't want the tea party label but can't win nationally without them. That's why after trouncing and denouncing them, they're trying to bring tea people back into the fold.
Nice try, but it won't work. Consider the lineup of speakers at the Republican Leadership Conference last weekend: Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee. Same ol', same ol'.
Remember, the tea party doesn't compromise.
A message of rage against the machine might play well in an occasional congressional or governor's race, but it is doomed nationally in a diverse nation like ours.
People see through it.
That's what can happen when outsiders become insiders and have a record that can be challenged. Voters who loved them once always reserve the right to change their minds.