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Is The Tea Party Thinking Of Changing Direction?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

November 6th saw most Tea Party members reelected to Congress, but there were also notable defeats. Tea Party candidates lost Senate races in Indiana and Missouri. This week, one Tea Party lawmaker suggested in an interview with Politico that it's time to moderate the approach. We invited New York Times reporter Kate Zernike to talk about the status of the Tea Party. She's written a book about it with a great title, "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America."

Welcome to the program.

KATE ZERNIKE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Kate Zernike, a real hero of the Tea Party movement, one of its great success stories is calling for change in the Tea Party, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He won in a Republican landslide in 2010, and now he appears to want to stir a little moderation into the Tea Party pot. I wonder if you think that the Tea Party itself is thinking about a change of direction.

ZERNIKE: Well, I think it's really striking that Rand Paul is the one making this call. I was on the campaign trail with him in 2010, and I remember a crowd of people standing outside of City Hall - I think it was in Independence, Kentucky - saying gridlock, gridlock, you know, cheering him on. And he said I want to see a little gridlock in Washington. I want to just stop things up.

So it's striking that he is now saying we need moderation. We need to get things done in Washington. And I think that is where the Tea Party began to go wrong after its massive victory in 2010, was that it really held out for extreme solutions, for we're not going to compromise. And the American voters who had supported the Tea Party, whether or not they were people who had gone to Tea Party rallies or Tea Party meetings, they didn't necessarily want that kind of gridlock. They wanted to see something happen in Washington.

So I think that while there are Tea Party members and real sort of Tea Party activists who are saying we need to press for no new taxes, for real cuts in spending, I don't think they're going to find as much popular support among voters.

WERTHEIMER: Now, one of the things Mr. Paul is talking about, he's talking about changing immigration law, making a path to citizenship for undocumented workers difficult, but possible.

ZERNIKE: You know, Republicans have gone along with the Tea Party and had hoped that it would carry them to electoral success largely by ignoring demographic realities. And the reality is that the voters of this country, the population of this country is becoming more Hispanic, more diverse. And the Tea Party, meanwhile, is largely, you know, disproportionately white, disproportionately older. That voting population can get you somewhere in a midterm election, but in a general election, it's not going to win you the presidency.

WERTHEIMER: Let me ask you about that relationship between the Tea Party and the Republican Party. If you look at it in this just-passed election, it sort of looks as though the Tea Party is - represents a wing of the Republican Party, the primary activist wing of the Republican Party. Is that what they are now?

ZERNIKE: Well, I think that's absolutely true. I mean, certainly, that's who they were in 2010, and it's who they were this year with the presidential race. But remember, even as early as 2010, we saw that the Tea Party being so active in the primaries was not necessarily a good thing for the Republican Party.

In 2010, the Republicans really had a shot, as they did this year, to take back the Senate. And they didn't because the Tea Party, in the primaries, pushed the Republican Party to nominate people who were not acceptable to general election voters. This year, we saw Joe Donnelly, the Democrat, win unexpectedly in Indiana after the Tea Party pushed out long-time Senator Dick Lugar. So, I think, again, the Tea Party, in the primary, is pushing the party to the right at a time when it needs to look more to the middle in the general election.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that after this election, that there is a Tea Party caucus? Does the Tea Party have the power in Congress to keep going to push for the kinds of the things you're talking about, fiscal conservatism, low taxes, no spending?

ZERNIKE: I think that we are facing a real - obviously, the fiscal cliff is very serious. I think that there is greater both understanding and also honesty about the fact that we cannot do this with spending cuts alone, which is what the Tea Party would argue. So, I think, increasingly, Republicans are going to say - and are coming out to say - that's not the route we can take.

I think Republicans saw again in this election that the Tea Party actually cost them some seats. And so I think they're going to be a little more willing to stand up to the Tea Party and say we understand you, we hear you, but this is the reality we're faced with.

WERTHEIMER: Kate Zernike, thank you very much.

ZERNIKE: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: That's New York Times reporter Kate Zernike. Her book is called "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America."

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WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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