It wasn’t hard to tell the Republican establishment from the Tea Party activists at this year’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. The different uniforms illustrated the unresolved tensions that run through American conservatism. In the convention hall, the regular Republicans often looked dressed for dinner at eight — smart jackets and pearls. A boy from West Virginia sported an orange bow tie beneath his coal miner’s hat. But at a separate Tea Party Unity Rally held in a local church, the audience of some 2,000 came dressed for a barbecue — T-shirts, jeans and the occasional crazy with a tricorn hat and musket. The atmosphere was folksy and amateurish; there was even a raffle. Yet the Unity Rally had a raw popular appeal which somehow managed to menace the convention hall. The message from the Tea Party: ‘We’re not finished with the Republican Party yet.’
Officially, the aim of the 2012 Republican convention was to relaunch Governor Romney as an electable candidate who is more than just a rich, tax-dodging businessman. But its other, unspoken goal was to try to create an accord between the Romney campaign and the Tea Party supporters it wants to enlist. Some of the Tea Party’s favourite conservatives — the likes of Rand Paul and Scott Walker — were invited to speak at the podium. The official Republican agenda was modified to incorporate several Tea Party demands, such as auditing the Federal Reserve and studying a return to the gold standard.
The reason for the Tea Party’s continuing influence is its electoral clout. In July, Ted Cruz won a surprise victory to be the Republican senatorial candidate for Texas, defeating the establishment’s choice on the back of Tea Party support. He embodies a new kind of Republican, the antithesis of Romney’s privileged Toryism. His Cuban father fled Castro for the shores of America with $100 sewn into his underwear. Young Ted excelled at Princeton and Harvard and eventually became a federal judge. He’s religiously evangelical and fiscally conservative, and his win in the primary was too astonishing for the Romney campaign to ignore.
Cruz was invited to give a prime-time speech in Tampa, which he used to denounce government and praise his father. ‘Thank God some well-meaning bureaucrat didn’t put his arm around him and say “Let me take care of you”,’ he said. ‘That would have been the most destructive thing anyone could have done.’
Some of the Tea Party’s rising Republican stars are genuine political newbies, such as the veterinarian Ted Yoho, who beat a 12-term congressman in a recent Florida Republican primary. His only television advertisement had actors dressed as politicians eating from a pig trough. But most of the Tea Party pin-ups have actually been involved in professional politics for years. Because they only really gained national attention after they became part of the Tea Party revolution, they owe those mad men in tricorn hats a great deal. Paul Ryan, the vice presidential pick, was first elected to Congress in 1998 and used to be a supporter of big spending. (There’s a video of him on YouTube making the case for a Keynesian solution to the recession of the early 2000s – the conservative equivalent of a leaked celebrity sex tape.) His name properly entered the national consciousness when he started pushing for comprehensive spending reform after 2008, which became something of a fiscal manifesto for the Tea Party. Today he is the ‘intellectual leader’ of America’s conservatives.
With the Tea Party’s advance comes a surprising fringe benefit: greater diversity in Republican politics. The new stars include women (Michele Bachmann), Hispanics (Cruz), African-Americans (Herman Cain) and Catholics (Rubio and Ryan). All these people tend to speak from the heart and to dress down, sounding and looking like a different species to the 65-year-old Romney, a multi-millionaire whose sartorial tastes are strictly country club.
Because of its flirtation with right-wing cultural positions, the Tea Party has often been interpreted by the media as a marketing problem for the Republican Party. On the contrary, it has helped create a Republican convention that looked more diverse, representative and sincere. The earthiness of the Tea Party gives Romney legitimacy. So does its message. Considering that -Romney has embraced so many of the Tea Party’s ideas, it’s tempting to see him as the establishment candidate articulating a message -borrowed from the grassroots. Romney might not be entirely comfortable with that deal, which has been reflected in some of his stilted strangeness on the stump. But Romney acknowledged his debt to the Tea Party at the convention, in the people he invited to speak and the policy changes. Without this band of activists, he might just be another grey moderate with little to offer the voter but platitudes and a healthy tan.
When it emerged that Hurricane Isaac would delay the convention by a day, it became the excuse for all manner of bad jokes. Jennifer Granholm, a former Democratic governor of Michigan, suggested it was a sign that God doesn’t like Republicans. Ted Cruz said he was ‘thankful’ for the storm because it forced Joe Biden, the vice president, to cancel his tour of Florida.
But Michele Bachmann, addressing her Tea Party supporters at the Unity Rally, made poetry from the weather. ‘We are looking at a hurricane here in Florida,’ she told the rally on Sunday. ‘A political hurricane… a spiritual hurricane.’ This delighted the crowd: the Tea Party is angry and sometimes destructive. But it is also an admirably pure force which still believes it is changing the American political landscape for ever.