TORONTO, ONTARIO - In the early months of 2010, political pundits really didn't know what to make of the TEA party. While the basic ideas underlying the movement were clear, it wasn't clear how much money would be involved, what kind of candidates they would back, or if they would have any actual electoral impact at all in a country that has had a two-party system for essentially its entire existence. There seemed only two long-term possibilities, (1) having its ideas subsumed by the Republican Party (as suggested on this blog), the only major party that it had anything in common with, or (2) replacing the Republican Party as the second party with the Democrats remaining the other party. There was plenty of precedent for the first (in my lifetime, most prominently both major parties taking deficit reduction seriously in the 1990's because of Ross Perot's Reform Party influence), and some precedent for the second possibility (the Whigs being replaced by the Republicans).
Now, it seems pretty clear what will happen, which could be described as a hybrid of the above possibilities. By mostly running as Republicans, using the Republican Party electoral apparatus, the TEA Party movement has not only changed the effective ideology of the Republican Party at large, but seems to be in the process of replacing it from within. The two party system has won again, and yet another "third party" possibility is no longer independent, but an integral part of one of the two parties. It may take an election cycle or more for the process to be complete, but the merger of the TEA party and the Republican party seems inevitable.
The electoral brilliance of the TEA Party is clear. Severe political damage was done by the George W. Bush administration to two brands: the political name "Bush" (nobody's talking about Jeb Bush running for anything for now), and the Republican Party. As badly as the Democratic Party is generically polling right now as the party in power during poor economic times, the Republican Party is still polling just as badly, little improved from 2008. (In fact, the latest Gallup Poll has them tied at 44% favorability, well under historical ratings.)
By re-branding conservative ideas as "TEA Party" ideas instead of "Republican Party" ideas, the baggage of the Republican brand is side-stepped, and people can get enthusiastic about it. Especially in a culture in which marketing is far more important than substance, even people that might think that "Republican" ideas didn't work can support "TEA Party" ideas, even when they are economically indistinguishable.
I would go so far as to say that the Republicans ought to seriously consider re-naming themselves formally, though it's too late to do so for the November elections. Even if in the future they ultimately tack back to the political center (which seems inevitable in the long-term), having a fresh brand will imply fresh ideas even when their ideas could otherwise be described as less than fresh. Furthermore, they could also set up a re-launch of the "classic Republican" brand at some point in the future, when they might need to distance themselves from the current era.
Somehow, I suspect the minds behind the right-wing are way ahead of me, just like they were on the TEA Party.