By Theda Skocpol
Pundits have shifted their assessments of Tea Party clout with each swing of the pendulum in the GOP primary season — starting with debates even before the voting in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and beyond. Either the Tea Party is said to be flexing its muscles, beating the “GOP establishment.” Or it is declared to be falling apart and failing to register much impact. The fortunes of Mitt Romney seem to determine which assessment is the favor of the day: if he does poorly, the Tea Party is strong; if he wins, the Tea Party is proving to be a paper tiger.
The trouble with all such assessments is twofold. First, they focus too much on the horse-race, attempting to label some candidates “Tea Partiers” and others “establishment” — while missing the big picture of the race to the right by all candidates in the GOP race. And secondly, such assessments mistakenly hold the Tea Party to a standard it cannot meet. Let me begin with the latter point, and come back to the former. Continue reading