Happy second birthday, Tea Party! You're in the midst of your Terrible Twos -- screaming up a storm, being finicky about what you eat, rebelling during nap-time and driving your babysitters crazy.
We nearly saw a budget deal to keep the government open derailed because of Tea Party antics. We're anticipating a fierce battle over raising the debt ceiling. Democrats got walloped by more than a handful of Tea Party candidates in 2010, but now it's Republican incumbents feeling the heat as Tea Partiers threaten their jobs in ferocious primaries. And we're on the eve of the first debates in the GOP presidential primary, where Tea Party energy will make the contestants compete in ways that will make the winner unpalatable in the general election.
The Tea Party has made itself heard over two feisty, volatile years. Both parties have headaches from the clamor - but then again, both parties deserve the pain. Why? Because both created the climate that allowed the Tea Party to emerge.
Tea Partiers are most frequently dismissed by the left for being a mix of largely white conservatives angry that a black man is president and largely working class Americans fooled into defending the rights and profits of corporations. While both of those dynamics are present in the complicated mix that makes of Tea Party rallies, there is something less objectionable that animates many of their members. Conservatives claim that the Tea Party is galvanized by the need for fiscal restraint and smaller government - but ultimately, it's something more personal than a budget deficit that propels people into the streets.
In late 2008, our major financial institutions were pushed to the brink - but they were saved. Huge amounts of public money shored them up and, embarrassingly, preserved executive compensations and bonuses. Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans were out of work, losing their homes and uncertain about their future.
That's a very real set of fears, which the Democrats did a poor job addressing. There was plenty of reason in early 2009 for someone who wasn't racist to still be scared and angry… and the Tea Party gave that anger an outlet, while the left was acting tame to support a newly elected Democratic President.
Yes, there are racists in the Tea Party; There are people who want Obama to fail; There are people who simple repeat the misinformation spouted by Fox "News." But there were also very real insecurities that needed a populist voice, which at the time, Democrats didn't provide.
So, Democrats are in part to blame for not making that populist spirit a progressive one…and have suffered as a result.
Now, though, it's the Republicans' turn to suffer. Despite the lessons from the 90s not to shut down the government, Boehner barely kept his caucus together to pass a spending bill. Despite the more recent lessons not to overreach, Tea Party politicians have gone too far in breaking labor and are facing a backlash across the country. And in DC, their crusade against government spending is forcing Republicans to take stances against popular - and necessary - government programs.
The Republican leadership did not create the Tea Party - but they did a savvy job fueling the fire and getting buoyed by the rising tide of right-leaning rage. While the Democrats were dismissing the concerns, the Republicans were harnessing the new movement for their own advantage. However, Republicans aren't really populists. Their leadership is the coziest with big banks and corporate cronies. But they bet on riding the Tea Party Express to electoral victory, and figuring out the rest back on the Hill.
They are now paying for that deal with the devil. Their Wall Street donors aren't going to allow the government to default, but their populist partisans don't want to raise the debt ceiling. However it works out will be painful for Republican leadership -- and likely further frustration for Tea Party activists who are learning the lesson progressive activists have taken as well: that Washington moves slowly, deals are cut, compromises are made, and the rhetoric from the campaign loses steam in the halls of power in D.C.
Meanwhile, Fox, which has trumpeted every Tea Party event, no matter how small, with fanfare, is enjoying the view. Fox didn't create the Tea Party, but it did amplify it, and continues to feed off the sensational antics of far right politicians. And wealthy conservatives like the Koch Brothers - the billionaires in search of ever-greater power and ever-smaller government to stand in their way - are doing just fine. The super-rich who helped fund an array of organizations that supported the Tea Party movement got their tax cuts in December, while regular Americans have had to sacrifice more and more; and the less functional the government, the less regulation there is to stop them from even greater profits.
And in all of that, where is the American who didn't have a job and was worried about his pension, his home, his family's future when he first joined the Tea Party? Still jobless as conservatives stand in the way of using public money on robust job-creation. Maybe homeless, as corporations continue to tank any efforts at resolving the mortgage and foreclosure crisis. And less secure than ever as pensions and benefits disappear in a race to the bottom caused by anti-worker crusades by Tea Party politicians.
For him, and for many Americans, the second anniversary of the Tea Party isn't much to celebrate.