THURSDAY, JAN. 31, 2013

Tea party supporters exiting

WASHINGTON – Is it last call for the tea party?

Consider these recent developments:

Late Thursday: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a possible presidential candidate in 2016, ridicules fellow Republicans as the “stupid party” and urges Washington Republicans to get over their obsession with cutting budgets.

Friday afternoon: The office of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, another would-be Republican presidential candidate, declares that he will not go along with a plan, hatched by conservative legislators, to rewrite the state’s election laws in a way that would stack Virginia’s electoral votes against Democrats.

Late Friday: Fox News says it has parted ways with Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential candidate and tea-party darling whose following had shriveled.

Saturday: Reports emerge that House Speaker John Boehner had given a speech in which he referred to “hard heads” in his Republican caucus.

Monday: Sen. John McCain, who during his 2008 presidential run backed an enforcement-only approach to immigration, declares his support for a plan for undocumented immigrants to become legal. Joining him on the stage is Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the party’s brightest stars for 2016.

This last offense was too much for Rush Limbaugh, who denounced the “amnesty” plan. “Why are we doing this?” he asked Rubio on-air Tuesday.

Rubio was solicitous but firm. “We do have this existing problem that has to be dealt with,” he replied.

It is too early to call a requiem for the tea party. The informal movement still dominates the House Republicans. And the GOP’s puritanical primary process, encouraged by the redrawing of districts to protect Republican seats, guarantees that the far right will remain entrenched in the party for some time. Fresh evidence of the phenomenon can be seen in the decision by Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to retire rather than face a primary challenge from the right.

But if the tea party isn’t over, some of the more sensible partygoers are heading for the exits, realizing that things are getting rowdy and the neighbors may soon be calling the cops. Republicans with national ambitions – Jindal, McDonnell, New Jersey’s Chris Christie – are moderating their images and views in ways that keep pace with the electorate.

That electorate punished some of the party’s more incendiary elements in November – Missouri’s Todd Akin, Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, Florida’s Allen West – and now many of those same people are voting with their remotes. Fox News apparently decided that it was no longer worth paying Palin to give televised warnings of the catastrophic effects of President Obama’s “socialist” policies.

Demagoguery works well in bad times, but it’s harder to stoke fear and anger when the stock market is at a five-year high and the private sector has been adding jobs for nearly three years.

If anything, anger has turned against tea-party lawmakers. Christie, one of the most popular Republicans in the land, decried GOP leaders’ “disgusting” behavior after they forced a delay in funds for Hurricane Sandy recovery. The leaders relented, allowing the spending bill, like Obama’s tax hike on the wealthy, to pass despite “no” votes from most House Republicans.

On immigration, likewise, fear of the tea party’s demagoguery has subsided. McCain, for example, fought off a primary challenge in 2010 from an opponent who called him soft on illegal immigration. But on Monday, McCain stood up to those who would call his new plan amnesty. A “de facto amnesty” already exists, he said. “We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve our food, clean our homes and even watch our children, while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great.”

The return of the old McCain (in 2010, he endorsed Arizona’s harsh immigration law) is an encouraging sign, as was the retirement of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a reflexive critic of anything he could label “amnesty.”

More good news comes from the House, where most declined to join Limbaugh in his “amnesty” rant. And Rubio, though he owes his job to the tea party, wasn’t going to be bullied.

“I know why people are uncomfortable about it,” he told Limbaugh on Tuesday. But he defended compromise. “Anytime I see anything that’s harmful to America, as a policymaker I try to make it better,” he said. “I’m just trying to do the best I can with what’s already a tough situation.”

Palin probably would disagree. But who cares?

Dana Milbank is a columnist for the Washington Post. His email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

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