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WASHINGTON -- This was the year of the tea party.
What began as a rant on cable TV morphed into a populist movement and political juggernaut in 2010 as conservatives turned against the status quo. Leaning Republican but willing to attack the party establishment, the burgeoning crusade pummeled the policies and persona of President Barack Obama and decisively ended the Democratic monopoly in Congress.
"The tea party from beginning to end really defined this election cycle," said Kate Zernike, a New York Times reporter who wrote "Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America."
"The mood that they captured was frustration and fear about the economy and a sense that government was doing too much and we didn't know what the government was doing so they must be up to no good."
The tea party became a political juggernaut as sympathizers showed up at rallies, called in to talk radio and, most importantly, turned out at campaign events. Here, tea party activists demonstrate against government spending on Sept. 12 in Washington.
The tea party is the latest incarnation of American populism, yet the so-called "lamestream media," as the movement's icon, Sarah Palin, calls it, initially dismissed the movement. After all, pundits asked, how serious could folks waving "Don't tread on me" flags with tea bags hanging from their tricorne hats be?
Very, it turned out.
Buoyed by Glenn Beck and his amen corner at Fox News, tea party sympathizers showed up at rallies, called in to talk radio and, most importantly, turned out at campaign events.
Their message was always the same: rage at Wall Street bailouts, trillion-dollar deficits, "Obamacare" and other symptoms of what they saw as an out-of-control government grasping beyond its constitutional limits.
The anger and resentment that bubbled over into the tea party movement had simmered for years as disappointment over the free-spending ways of President George W. Bush, says former Bush speechwriter David Frum.
"Conservatives saved up a lot of their unhappiness over a period of years and discharged it in this intense burst," he said.
Tea party activists took a page from the left-leaning netroots that spawned MoveOn.org and helped Democrats take over Congress in 2006 and elect Obama in 2008. They used blogs, Facebook and other online tools to mobilize. Local chapters sprang up across the country with names like Tea Party Patriots and Tea Party Express. Members viewed themselves as nascent power players inside -- but not a part of -- the GOP as they clung to the conceit that they had no, and did not need a, national leader.
The tea party became less a movement, Frum argues, than "a brand. It's a label that's available that different people can use in different ways."
For Beltway-savvy groups like FreedomWorks and like-minded conservative players, the tea party was a way back from the political wilderness. They offered their help.
"They've gone from a very decentralized protest movement to something more sophisticated, more cohesiveness," said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe, whose group organized rallies and ran training sessions for activists. "There's been an evolution into a full-fledged social movement."
A movement with electoral clout.
Tea party insurgents -- often with Palin's blessing -- took on and beat Republican-anointed candidates in primaries from Delaware to Alaska. At first, party leaders were alarmed but soon learned to embrace the mavericks as their own.
And why not? Tea party sympathizers may have stormed the polls more out of animosity to Obama than love for Republicans, but in the end most cast their ballots for the GOP.
Tea party candidates won at least 40 seats in the House, ending their nemesis Nancy Pelosi's reign as speaker and bulking up an influential new caucus on Capitol Hill.
Their impact was more mixed on the Senate, where movement candidates sometimes seemed more like guests at a Mad Hatter's tea party than serious contenders for elected office.
Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado upset more moderate and polished candidates in primaries and gained national attention for their sometimes unorthodox positions. Yet none could wrest Senate seats held by Democrats and were later blamed for costing Republicans a majority in both houses.
Still, few can deny that the movement has revived a party that looked moribund two years ago. Or that its newfound clout will be felt in Congress.
From their place at the leadership table to the elevation of their heroes -- the House committee overseeing the Federal Reserve will soon be chaired by a lawmaker who wants to abolish it and whose son beat the GOP establishment choice to become senator from Kentucky -- to the 2012 presidential election, the tea partiers have arrived.
Now all Washington waits to see whether they will change. Although they have been warned to act like "adults" on tough votes such as raising the federal debt limit, some are already rebelling. Others have been called out as hypocrites for consorting with lobbyists and Wall Street types or indulging in pork-barrel spending.
"If tea party members themselves succumb to partisan politics as usual, and fail to stake out any principled ground, [their] chances of having lasting impact are small," said Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, whose American Values Survey found them to be "a mixed blessing" for the Republican Party.
Movement stalwarts make up just 11 percent of adults, according to the survey. Most are white social conservatives who identify with the Christian right, are over 30 and hold views "well outside the mainstream" on many issues, Jones said. "It seems unlikely that it will serve as a major force in American politics over multiple election cycles."
In the next election cycle, though, the tea party could well dominate the Republican presidential selection process, said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Which may or may not be good news for Republicans hoping to make Obama a one-term president.
The movement "is unpredictable," Sabato said. "There are unstable elements in the tea brew that could cause an explosive self-destruction."
And there is one key variable out of its control. If the economy rebounds, Frum predicts disheartened Democrats who propelled Obama into the White House and who have been most hurt by the recession -- union members, young people, minorities and low-income workers -- will return in force in 2012. And much of the steam will go out of the tea party.
Zernike agrees: "They have staying power for as long as the economy continues to be uncertain."