Also, public sentiment is much more on their side than you might guess from media coverage of the Tea Party. As political scientist Larry Bartels recently observed, the public is "more conservative than at any time since 1952." That new progressive era liberals promised in 2008? It never happened. The public has grown more conservative during the Obama presidency. The catch: It's grown less Republican too.
In "The Roots of Modern Conservatism," historian Michael Bowen argues that the familiar creation story of the modern right that focuses on Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 presidential bid skips the all-important chapters of the 1940s and 1950s. This was when the original "Me Too" Republican, Thomas Dewey, battled the legendary "Mr. Republican," Robert Taft. ("Me Too" GOPers claimed they liked the New Deal, it was just run poorly.)
According to Bowen, the fight between Dewey and Taft had less to do with ideology and more with internal GOP politics. Desperate to gain control of the party, the two factions invoked -- and often invented -- ideological differences to justify their claims and grievances. Eventually, the ideological arguments became self-justifying, in the same way the Sunni-Shiite Muslim split started as a fight over the prophet Muhammad's successor and was only retroactively imbued with profound theological significance.
A similar dynamic is at work on the right today. Six months ago, most Tea Party leaders were eager to get rid of the medical device tax under Obamacare. But, in the recent budget battle, getting rid of it was suddenly an ideological betrayal and a sop to big business.
A culture war is definitely raging on the right, and a civil war may follow, though I hope not. I'd hate to see the GOP establishment create an ideological rationale for being anti-Tea Party. It's better for conservatism if the GOP establishment is pulled toward the Tea Party, rather than repelled from it. Likewise, it's better if the Tea Party sees the GOP as a vehicle for its agenda rather than an obstruction.
If forced, I'd root for the tea partiers. And once they're in power, I'd chuckle as the Richard Vigueries denounced them as sellouts too.