By staying, of course, they became part of the establishment, shaping the Republican Party for decades and, during the Bush years, becoming tainted by association. To some Tea Party supporters, apparently, this sounds like a story of failure. But it looks a lot more substantial when measured against the record of the activists who didn’t stay—and, in terms of national politics, were never heard from again.
There’s an irony, of course, in the one-time newcomers now being derided as out-of-touch establishment types. But if the Tea Party movement does want to turn this efflorescence of activity into lasting influence, its members will have to chart the same course followed that earlier wave of activists, finding a way to work within existing networks of political power more often than against them.
There’s evidence that this is happening at the local level, where Tea Party supporters are learning the ropes, figuring out how to exert influence through county committees and the like. At the national level, where the competition for influence is fiercer, there’s an opportunity for an ambitious politician who can serve as a facilitator. It’s a role that might naturally filled by an “outsider” champion who understands the value of “insiders,” and thus knows how to reap support from both camps—someone, perhaps, like Marco Rubio.