At first glance, it looks as if the tea partiers scored a big win over speaker of the House John Boehner and the Republican Party establishment last week.
Boehner pleaded for Republican members of Congress to unite in support of a package of spending cuts and a debt limit increase. He ran into vehement opposition from Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the head of the Republican Study Committee, a large group of conservatives in the House.
And they beat him: He could not get enough votes for his original plan to pass.
Take another look, though, and the clout of this faction looks a lot less impressive. Roughly 88 percent of House Republicans sided with Boehner.
The vast majority of freshmen Republican representatives backed Boehner. The vast majority of members of the Republican Study Committee aligned with the speaker, not their committee leader. Many members of Congress who are strongly associated with the tea parties backed the Boehner bill, too.
What happened last week was that about 12 percent of House Republicans thought that they could use the sheer force of their willpower as leverage to get a constitutional amendment. It was never going to work, of course. They may have thought it would because some activists said it would. But these activists do not speak for all or even a large fraction of the people who share their limited-government principles, especially on strategic questions.
The freshmen Republicans associated with the tea parties have often been misunderstood by friend and foe alike. They have been seen as newcomers to politics who hate all compromise and seethe with hostility to party leaders. Some of them do, but many of them are practical conservatives with experience in state and local politics.
The tea party faction that has been in the news over the past week — the group that sank Boehner's plan — demonstrated that it could deny Republicans a majority when its members make a tactical alliance with the Democrats, who unanimously opposed the plan. Similarly, the tea partiers can punish Republicans and help Democrats by sitting out general elections.
But the faction's power in Republican primaries is overrated. In 2010, only two Republican incumbents lost their seats in primaries due to conservative opposition (carbon tax proponent Rep. Bob Inglis of South Carolina, and party-switching Rep. Parker Griffith of Alabama). Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah lost his seat in a caucus, which rewards purists. The other big tea party wins came in open seats.
Unless the tea party tide is stronger in 2012 than it was in 2010, Republican incumbents are probably safe, at least if they're in places that use primaries.
In 2010, "the tea party" was journalistic shorthand for a new influx of people and passion into conservatism. Allied with other conservatives, they moved the Republican Party rightward. Allied as well with a public alarmed by liberalism on the march, they won a lot of elections. To the extent that tea partiers devote their energies to attacking Republicans for not cutting government fast enough, they will just be an irritant, as splinters usually are.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review.
© 2011 Bloomberg News