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The view from 'tea party country'

| Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

POINT MARION — At one end of Pennsylvania's oldest state highway, two lanes curving along the Monongahela River from suburban Pittsburgh, sits a police station with no officers to patrol a river town plagued by abject poverty, escalating drug-related crime and high unemployment.

The police department closed in late September because it couldn't afford the spiking cost of liability insurance; back-to-back federal lawsuits, alleging civil rights violations by the borough's lone police officer, had caused the insurance carrier to drop it.

A few miles up the road, 170 employees at Hatfield's Ferry Power Station, a coal-fired electrical power plant, arrived at 7 a.m. last week for their regular shift and walked out an hour later for the last time, because the cost of retrofitting the plant to meet federal emission regulations made operations impossible.

If ever a region could be described as “tea party country,” this would be it. Branded as “bitter” during the Democrats' 2008 presidential primary, its born-Democrat residents were drawn into the fiercely independent tea party movement in 2009 by public anger over government spending.

Truth be told, the anti-Washington sentiment was gathering shape in 2006, as anger grew over reckless spending by George W. Bush and Republicans and over the Iraq War.

Today, “extremist” has replaced “bitter” as the label that Washington pundits and politicians use to describe these people. It was a word used often during the latest government shutdown, when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, insisted he had the Senate votes to defund ObamaCare.

Cruz portrayed himself as a hero for the misunderstood, a defender of the powerless, the opposite of Washington's elite. In interviews, he pumped hope into folks and channeled their frustration.

Observed Paul Mountain, a truck driver from nearby Monongahela: “I don't know enough about Cruz to be skeptical of his motives. The one thing I do like about him is that he does speak up for us.”

Mountain, who grew up in this Democrat stronghold, paid little attention to politics until he had children. Now, at 53, he considers himself a tea party supporter and his frustration with Washington is well-articulated.

Cruz remains the face of a shutdown that led the country to the edge of the federal debt-default abyss and sent his party tumbling into its worst polling numbers ever. Luckily, ObamaCare — the very thing Cruz was fighting to defund — has sucked away the GOP's bad press because its launch is such an unmitigated disaster.

Anthony Ragan, a Los Angeles freelance writer and tea party enthusiast, said the recent defunding-shutdown kerfuffle has tempered his enthusiasm for Cruz. “I like him quite a lot,” he said. “I'm just not willing to throw my room key on the stage at his feet, yet.”

Ragan is stepping on the brakes a bit, he said, because Cruz's strategy had no chance of working. That made him question Cruz's judgment and motives, since the cost — including party rancor, public animosity and a near-term political victory for Democrats — was not worth whatever was gained, he said.

“We need a vigorous, fighting opposition. ... I just want them to show more discerning judgment when picking their hills to fight on,” he added.

Tea party conservatives should have seen all of that coming, said Baylor University professor Curt Nichols. “Ultimately, they lost the recent tussle with President Obama because they failed to consider what would happen if Democrats refused to do anything during the shutdown,” he said.

Everyone could have benefited if tea partyers had used the government shutdown to educate Americans about the issue and to demonstrate that they were the true adults in the conversation about the nation's future, Nichols said.

Life is ironic: Here in Point Marion, the West Virginia border is literally a stone's throw away. That state's freshman U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, a pro-gun, pro-coal Democrat, has called for exactly what Republicans fought for in the government shutdown — a delay in rolling out ObamaCare.

Washington should note that the public's patience is finite and that no party is immune to growing populism. Out here in “flyover country,” that makes tea party activism seem, well, like a dainty tea party.

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