Has the tea party peaked? Republican lawmakers affiliated with the upstart anti-tax movement scored big in the nerve-racking debt-ceiling debacle, but the victory left enough hard feelings to feed the movement's ultimate defeat.
To quote an old Chicago White Sox slogan from the 1980s, their achievement was a case of "winning ugly."
With the nation's credit rating in the balance, the tea partyers seized the normally routine matter of raising the nation's debt ceiling and held it hostage, gangsta-style: Cut government spending our way, they reasoned, and nobody gets hurt.
In the end, after weeks of partisan fighting, President Obama signed without joy or ceremony a budget bill that avoided a credit default. It cuts $2 trillion in spending over the next decade, yet shaves barely a sliver off of the expected growth in the national debt during that period.
That's largely because the bill doesn't include tax increases, a tea party no-no. Instead the savings come entirely from cuts in programs and benefits. And the Standard & Poor's rating agency downgraded the U.S. government's credit rating, saying the compromise deal doesn't sufficiently reduce deficits.
Are there any reasons why this could hurt the "teas" and their allies? I can think of three: Disappointment, divisiveness and dangerous disregard.
* Disappointment. Polls indicate growing numbers of the public think the teas have become part of the problem they came to Washington to cure.
Fully 82 percent of Americans disapprove of Congress' performance in the hard-fought debt limit debate, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll.
And public disapproval of the tea party doubled to 40 percent from 18 percent when that question was first asked in April 2010.
* Divisiveness. The tea party movement grew out of conservatives' frustration with a Washington they saw as taxing and spending too much -- by both parties. Republican leadership, still shaken from 2006 election losses, welcomed the new energy that led to a comeback in the 2010 midterm elections. But fissures in the uneasy alliance between the teas and the party establishment showed themselves.
As House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio pushed to strike a deal to increase the nation's borrowing authority, some of the tea party faction argued whether the debt ceiling should be raised at all. The Founding Fathers would have quaked.
Tea party freshmen faced a more conservative electorate in the 2010 midterms than the larger turnout that's expected in a presidential year. Yet they continue to push further right. Let the voters decide.
* Dangerous disregard. Even fellow conservatives are beginning to speak out against the frightening radical ax that tea party folks want to swing at government spending. "Don't call them conservatives," fumed conservative Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Ronald Reagan White House and for Colin Powell, in a blog post. "Call them Banana Republicans if you like -- or Republicans-Gone-Bananas."
His beef is that the tea party faction is rewriting the meaning of conservatism to save short-term dollars. "First and foremost," he exclaimed, "conservatives pay their bills." Amen.
Grass-roots movements are like bees, an old saying goes, they sting and then they die. The tea party, like the original Boston Tea Party, fits what the founders called a movement of the moment. Like others, the teas are likely to melt, at best, into one of the major parties. In the meantime, they can stir up a lot of mischief, even for those who want to be their allies.