If history tells us anything, the rise of Newt Gingrich to Republican presidential front-runner is a sign that the tea party movement is destroying itself. After all, the former House speaker has surged to the top of GOP presidential polls on the shoulders of tea party supporters, a movement that ironically came together to topple "Washington insiders" -- like Gingrich.
The tea partyers rose up angrily in early 2009 to expose and clean out what they saw as Washington fat cats and wheeler-dealers who line their pockets while raising taxes, expanding government and spending taxpayers' money.
Now, less than a month before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the movement has become a faction of the party whose front-runners are Mitt Romney, whom the right largely rejects as being too moderate and flippy-floppy, and Gingrich, the quintessential Washington insider.
Gingrich is the man who has earned millions by doing precisely what the tea party rages against: advising, promoting and lobbying for big corporate and public policy interests. That includes at least $1.6 million he was paid by Freddie Mac, a government-sponsored home-lending entity that many conservatives blame for the financial crisis.
Yet, fiscal conservatives appear to be putting all that aside in the way many social conservatives are looking past his two divorces or his ethical challenges, including his historical status as the only House speaker to be disciplined for ethics violations.
What's left of the tea party insurgency appears to be willing to look past Gingrich's shortcomings in pursuit of a bigger prize, the defeat of President Obama -- after defeating Romney.
One reason for Gingrich's rise: The tea party and the Grand Old Party have been looking for strong, sure-footed leadership and no one's feet are more sure than Gingrich's. He provides leadership the tea party appears to need: someone who can tell a movement's members what they are for when they only know what they are against.
After all, the teas rose to fill a political gap. The Republican establishment was in disarray, devoid of leaders and intimidated after Obama's election landslide. The teas fired up town halls, seized the national conversation, helped bring a halt to bipartisan compromise in Congress and helped Republicans regain their House majority.
Back when Gingrich announced his candidacy, I thought it was perfect timing. The right was energized and the left, in those pre-Occupy days, was demoralized. But Gingrich had a problem. He was more of a Washington insider than Romney, the GOP establishment favorite. Washington experience became a deal-breaker; feisty amateurism, a virtue. In a spectacle about as deliberative as "American Idol" auditions, GOP voters flirted with Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain -- anybody but Mitt.
And now Gingrich -- suddenly riding high on a wave kicked up by his own confidently quick-witted and media-bashing debate performances. Suddenly Gingrich is tying or beating Romney in national polls.
Of course, Gingrich could be toppled as the latest GOP flavor-of-the-month, but this close to the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the timing of his return from the political grave could hardly be more fortunate.
But what exactly does Gingrich's rise say about the tea party movement? Are the tea partyers selling out or buying in? Probably a little of both. In that way, they're beginning to look a lot like other conservative Republicans. In other words, business as usual.
So, so long, tea party. The name remains, but the spirit is fading.