The Surprisingly Un-Civil-War-Like Nature of the "Tea Party" State of the Union Response

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 12 2013 9:44 AM

The Surprisingly Un-Civil-War-Like Nature of the "Tea Party" State of the Union Response

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Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks at the March for Life on January 25, 2013 in Washington, DC. The pro-life gathering is held each year around the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Sen. Rand Paul is giving tonight's annual "Tea Party response to the State of the Union," a gimmicky tradition started by Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2011. The press wants to write a "GOP in disarray" story—"Is Paul the voice of the party, or is the actual GOP response-giver Marco Rubio?"—and this is doing the trick. Liberals are piling on; union flack Eddie Vale says the the GOP is a "House divided," and that Rubio, a "Tea Party darling," is being undermined.

Well. The Tea Party response was always overhyped as a symbol of GOP division. In 2011, with interest in the movement peaking, networks cut to Bachmann right after Rep. Paul Ryan was finished giving the official Republican response. If anyone remembers the Bachmann speech, it's for a logistical issue that made Bachmann look at the wrong camera—the web stream camera—instead of the TV camera. But the wholly forgotten speech didn't contradict Ryan at all. It was five minutes of "the debt will kill us"-style rhetoric, with some extra flourishes (warning of "16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill"), but nothing about social issues.

Again, that was at the buzzy apex of Tea Party mania. The Tea Party response was put on by the Tea Party Express, the GOP consultant-founded but movement-powered campaign organization that had previously been famous for sending insta-rally buses on tours of Real America. CNN had embedded on one of those tours, then ran the Bachmann speech live, and then partnered with the group for a 2011 GOP presidential debate. That, says TPX's Sal Russo, was as far as it went—the partnership was "just for the Tampa debate."

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I've asked CNN what their broadcast plans are for this Paul speech, and if this will be streamed beyond RedState.com and TeaPartyExpress.org. But if past is prologue, this won't step on the GOP's message at all.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.