A Late Arrival to the Party

Over at Politico, Mike Calderone reports that The Washington Post will be stepping up its Tea Party coverage. Local writers Amy Gardner and Sandhya Somashekhar will be moving to the National desk, where Gardner “will train her sights on the emerging Tea Party movement and developments inside the Republican Party,” according to a memo to Post staffers obtained by Calderone.

The move is overdue. While it makes sense that beat specialists like The Washington Independent’s excellent Dave Weigel were among the leaders on this story, outlets like Politico and, later, The New York Times jumped in months ago to outline both the sentiments driving the movement and its nascent infrastructure. The Post is late to the game.

There’s an explanation of the timing contained in the memo, which is posted in full by Calderone: the new assignments for Gardner and Somashekhar are designed “to help [National] cover the midterm elections.” (I heard something similar from a Post editor—that the paper would step up its coverage of the movement as part of a broader pre-election push—while discussing Tea Party coverage with various news outlets some time ago).

This approach makes a certain sense; elections are, after all, the defining events of our political life. But beyond leaving the Post behind its competition, it misses much of what’s interesting about the Tea Party folks. For all their anger at Washington, and all the infighting about ownership of the movement, there’s a good chance that the Tea Partiers won’t be too significant, electorally—most of them have been reliable Republican votes in the past, and they’ll be reliable Republican votes in the future. Things like enthusiasm and turnout and engagement matter, of course, and there are some questions in that vein surrounding the Tea Party that journalists should try to answer heading into November. But evidence for any sort of seismic shift in ideology or formation of cross-cutting coalitions is thin.

But just because we shouldn’t expect the Tea Party to swing many election results doesn’t mean it’s not newsworthy. Among the interesting questions it raises: How will the movement shape the running battle over priorities within the Republican Party? And how it is affecting the people who are part of it—what is driving them to join committees, host rallies, and organize campaigns for the first time in their lives?

While other news outlets have taken a crack at those stories, the Post can still cover them, and hopefully it will. But while they’re clearly political, they’re not exactly “election” or “campaign” stories—and there’s no need to wait for campaign season to tell them.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.