Tea Party-beat reporter Kate Zernike de-emphasized the meaning of the Tea Party victories in her Wednesday front-page post-election look ahead, "Newcomers Ride to Power With an Unclear Mandate." Zernike harped on fears of Tea Party "extremism" that supposedly blew at least two Senate seats for the Republicans (never mind that it was that new energy that helped enable the GOP to make such an impressive showing on Tuesday in the first place). The online headline is clearer: "Tea Party Comes to Power on an Unclear Mandate."
The Tea Party movement set the agenda in its first midterms, its energy propelling the Republican sweep in the House and capturing the mood of a significant chunk of the electorate, with a remarkable 4 in 10 voters in exit polls expressing support for the movement.
But in the Senate, the effect was exactly what establishment Republicans had feared: While Tea Party energy powered some victories, concerns about Tea Party extremism also cost them what could have been easy gains - most notably in Nevada, where the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid, survived a challenge from Sharron Angle, a Tea Party favorite.
Now, as it tries to make the transition from a protest movement to a power on Capitol Hill, the Tea Party faces the challenge of channeling the energy it brought to the election into a governing agenda when it has no clear mandate, a stated distaste for the inevitable compromises of legislating, and a wary relationship with Republican leaders in Congress.
For many voters the Tea Party has been a blank screen on which they have projected all kinds of hopes and frustrations - not always compatible or realistic.
To many in the movement, the singular goal is to stop an expanding government in its tracks, to "hold the line at all hazards," as Jennifer Stefano, a Tea Party leader in Pennsylvania, put it.
In the Senate, the Tea Party carried to victory Marco Rubio in Florida and Rand Paul in Kentucky. Still, it cost the Republicans some seats that they had once counted as solid, including one in Delaware, where Christine O'Donnell, who beat an establishment candidate in the primary thanks to strong Tea Party support, lost to Chris Coons, a Democrat once considered a long shot.
Even more painful for Republicans was the result in Nevada. Mr. Reid, once considered the most vulnerable Democrat, fought off Ms. Angle, who had made headlines for her controversial and sometimes eccentric remarks.
A year spent observing the contours of Tea Party America revealed an uneasy alliance within it, between those who came to the movement with unswerving ideology, generally libertarian, and those who say they came to it more out of frustration and a desire to feel that they were doing something to move forward when the country seemed stuck.
The much-mocked sign at a health care town hall last summer, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare," suggested how many Tea Party supporters had come to the movement without thinking through the specifics. While the more ideological Tea Party supporters embrace ideas like phasing out Social Security and Medicare in favor of private savings accounts, most do not.
Actually, it was a question posed at a town-hall meeting held by Republican Rep. Robert Inglis of South Carolina in the summer of 2009. Inglis himself relayed the account to the Washington Post.
Zernike threw another bucket of ice-cold water into the Teapot:
And just as Tea Party supporters do not always agree on what the agenda is, most Americans disagree with many of the goals proclaimed by Tea Party candidates.
While incoming Tea Party lawmakers like Mr. Paul have advocated sharp across-the-board cuts in federal spending, a Pew Research Center poll last week found that a plurality of Americans disapproved of a proposal to freeze all government spending except the part that goes to national security. A majority disapproved of permanently extending the Bush-era tax cuts on incomes greater than $250,000.
A New York Times/CBS News poll last month similarly found opposition to raising the retirement age or reducing Social Security or Medicare benefits for future retirees. And a plurality of voters disagreed with what is perhaps the Tea Party movement's most widely supported goal: repealing the health care overhaul passed in March.