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The Tea Party Is Dead. Long Live the Tea Party

Conservatives in Congress and in the hinterlands are bitterly complaining about the massive insult to fiscal sanity the budget deal passed on Thursday morning represents.

Even worse, some Republicans are offended by the pushback. Their target is Senator Rand Paul who, almost alone, tried to stand in the way of the budget deal in the Senate.

GOP political analyst Susan Del Percio said on MSNBC that it was the day "the tea party died."

DEL PERCIO: And it’s amazing we’re not even coming close to talking about entitlement reform, so I kind of look at today as the day the tea party movement died. Anyone who was elected, the majority of Republicans in the House now have been elected since 2010 as part of the tea party movement, it’s gone. There’s no sense in saying you’re a fiscally responsible Republican when you vote for things like that. And especially when you don’t even take a stand on entitlement reform. This president has indicated he won’t go there, which is going to create some real serious problems for us looking down the road.

SCARBOROUGH: And Sam stein, where was Ted Cruz? I would have expected Ted Cruz to be delivering that speech last night. That Rand Paul delivered. Because Ted Cruz, after all, shut down the government in 2013 for far less than this.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens echoed those sentiments.

SCARBOROUGH: Do you agree with what somebody said earlier in this program, that... that last night’s deal really did drive the final nail into the tea party’s coffin? There are no small government conservatives running Washington anymore.

STEPHENS: “I hope that’s true, and I hope that’s true because I hope it’s the end of the era of congressional puritanism or purism, which makes the country ungovernable. This was, you know, a Las Vegas buffet with extra shrimp for everyone. And maybe that’s actually a better recipe for governing the United States and having predictable budgets than the constant sort of succession of shutdowns that we’ve lived with for the past few years. So if you’re having to choose your poison between — I don’t want to say — it’s not corruption, but kind of pork barrel spending that makes everyone happy or stop-and-start politics where the United States is constantly in crisis, I think I’m going to take the former, right? And if it drives a stake into the heart of the tea party, that much the better.

I have criticized the tea party groups in the past for their "take no prisoners" approach to politics. But the tea party's real value to the country is that for the first time since the ratification debates over the Constitution, millions of people across the country were actually reading and discussing our founding document.

These weren't constitutional scholars sitting around some Ivy League lecture hall esoterically discussing the foundations of America. These were millions of ordinary people sitting at kitchen tables, in small church meeting rooms, on front porches and backyards probing the reasons America came into existence.

In 2010 at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, I witnessed and heard some of these debates first hand. Everyone was walking around with pocket Constitutions, reading and trying to understand the relevance of that document. It doesn't matter if the arguments weren't on point or legally "correct." What mattered was that ordinary people had taken a keen interest in preserving the spirit of the Constitution and the essence of our founding principles that are "self-evident" in that document at a time it has been under relentless attack.

In a word, it was awesome.

This side of the tea parties was never widely reported on by the media, for very good reasons. The left hates getting into a discussion about what the Constitution says because they can't defend most of their ideas. Despite the fact that the founders wrote the Constitution so that basically anyone who could read could understand it, the left keeps insisting the Constitution says things that it doesn't.

Any clever lawyer or willing judge can twist the meaning of the Constitution so that it says anything they want it to say to accomplish any end they wish to accomplish. So the budget deal may have killed fiscal sanity in Washington and -- perhaps -- the tea party's political power to some extent. And the GOP may have co-opted most of the larger tea party groups to do the party's bidding.

What remains of the tea party is, to my mind, the best part. The desire of ordinary people to govern themselves, to take personal responsibility for their own lives, and to try to do something about the denigration and increasing irrelevance of the Constitution.

If that spirit ever dies, America dies.