Go to the panels with the boring names. That’s the secret to any political conference. Flashy names are candy floss meant to tempt you into meetings that at best will tell you what you already know, and at worst will bore you mindless.

That’s the approach I take, anyway, at the 2011 Defending the American Dream Summit, the annual megaconfab put on by Americans for Prosperity. This is the Tea Party group chaired by the billionaire industrialist David Koch with a budget, at last measure, of more than $40 million. Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani are all here to address thousands of Tea Partiers. But the actual planning is happening in small rooms, under titles like “Property Rights in Peril.” I head inside to find AFP’s petite Oregon director, Karla Kay Edwards, clicking “Play” on a PowerPoint. We see a map of the United States with public lands marked in red.

“Dead capital is property that has no possibility of securing property rights on it,” says Edwards. “Folks, I submit to you that everything in red has no possibility of securing property rights on it.”

A few dozen Tea Party activists take it in, scribble down notes. They’re spending two days in Washington, D.C., on heavily discounted tickets. If they live close by—Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina—odds are that they took a chartered bus here with fellow Tea Partiers. They’re the vanguard of the movement, Republican precinct chairs and campaign volunteers, and they are learning that the 2012 elections won’t count for much unless victory results in a huge sell-off of public lands.

It’s easy to think that the Tea Party is on the wane. Its obituary has been written countless times in the past twelve months. And, in a couple of big, visible ways, it’s true. The large “taxpayer march on Washington” on September 12, 2009, was never matched or repeated. April 15, 2011, the third annual day of tax protests, was mostly a fluke. And the Tea Party’s punching weight in the GOP presidential primary has been hard to measure. Just as conservatives failed to decide on an alternative to John McCain, they have fumbled and staggered from candidate to candidate in a vain attempt to challenge Mitt Romney. In September, Romney appeared at a ballyhooed Tea Party Express rally in New Hampshire. I was there. The activists only outnumbered the reporters by around four to one.

But this is the wrong way to look at the Tea Party. After 2010, the movement evolved. Activists got jobs with newly elected Republicans. Political organizations like Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks grew their staffs and budgets. Elected Republicans continued to draw on them for strength, support, and warm bodies at campaign events. Think of Florida Governor Rick Scott signing his budget at a Tea Party rally instead of in the Capitol, or of Senator Jim DeMint and other conservatives holding Tea Party events to defend their hell-no stances on raising the debt ceiling.

This new, professionalized Tea Party may not have the numbers to pack the National Mall with tricorne hats, but it has proved itself spectacularly adept at two other tasks: exacting promises and submission from presidential candidates; and setting the Republican policy agenda. And in a representative government, at a time when a languishing economy and anemic voter turnout may turn the odds against Democrats, truly—what else matters?

If, as is quite possible, the Republicans gain control of both the White House and Congress, the Tea Party will have gained a hugely disproportionate amount of control over the government through the use of these two mechanisms. One of them is playing out right now in the garish arena of the primary campaign. The other has been in rehearsals for the past year in the halls of Congress. Here’s a brief description of both.

The candidate veto

T he next Republican nominee will agree with the Tea Party on every issue of substance. This won’t be true if Jon Huntsman stages a series of miracle surges in key states and grabs the nomination. Fine, sure: leave that possibility aside. If anyone else wins, he or she will have given the Tea Party most of what it wants, all during the audition stage.

Start with Mitt Romney, the presumptive front-runner who Tea Partiers are happiest to trash on the record, and a good test case for what the movement can extract from candidates before the polls open. He was cagey during the debt fight right up until June 29, when he endorsed the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge. FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s group, had endorsed the pledge on June 28. It was a radical set of promises. Developed by the conservative Republican Study Committee, endorsed immediately by big Tea Party groups, it committed the signer to reduce nondefense discretionary spending to 2008 levels, cap spending so that it falls below 20 percent of GDP by 2021, and get ratified a new version of the Balanced Budget Amendment that prohibits tax increases unless two-thirds of the Congress agrees to them.

And now, cutting and capping is Romney’s default answer to thorny debate questions about the budget.

That’s just a taste of what the Tea Party has extracted from Romney. Throughout 2011, he lagged the flavors of the various months—Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich—in the support of self-proclaimed “Tea Party voters.” The main reason: as governor, he signed a health care bill that became the model for the eventual patchwork Affordable Care Act. Fear of the Tea Party has gotten Romney to denounce his work. In the September 7 debate, he imagined his first day behind the Oval Office desk, and promised to grant “a waiver from Obamacare to all fifty states.” But that wasn’t enough. In a subsequent debate, still feeling the pressure, Romney pledged to go one better and use reconciliation to repeal “Obamacare” on day one of his administration— a long-standing Tea Party demand endorsed by many of the other Republican contenders.

With the spotlight on him from the beginning, Romney has been stuck in reactive mode. Other candidates have been more successful at getting out in front of the movement. Newt Gingrich’s actual record shouldn’t assuage a Tea Partier at all, but he endorsed the movement early, and he’s been proactive about feeding it new ideas. “Take the most bizarre of judges and simply abolish their court,” he suggested in a September interview with the Daily Caller. “Tell them to go home.” The movement ate it up. That’s been a sure way to get ahead in this campaign: out-Tea Party the Tea Party.

The negative agenda

O n November 17, a week before the budget “super committee” had to release its plan to cut the debt, FreedomWorks released a plan of its own. The Tea Party Budget was a thirty-three-page epistle of budget cuts, entitlement cuts, and repeal plans. Mike Lee and Rand Paul kicked off an ersatz “hearing.” The twelve Tea Party activists who’d served on the commission fielded questions. Members of the GOP House majority tromped in to hail the cutters as patriots. “I certainly would consider sponsoring this bill in the House of Representatives,” said Georgia Representative Paul Broun.

But that term—“sponsor this bill in the House”— became mostly meaningless in 2011. The biggest dreams of the new House majority were crushed by a Democratic president and Senate. Defunding NPR, defunding Planned Parenthood, ending foreign aid—all of it passed, none of it survived. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” died, too.

The Tea Party expects another crack at this—all of this—in 2013. The Tea Party Budget suggested where the movement will go next. It endorsed the elimination of four Cabinet agencies—Commerce, Education, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development. (One better than Rick Perry, one worse than Ron Paul.) It would privatize the big government- sponsored enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, and Amtrak. It killed farm subsidies, ethanol subsidies, $962.3 billion worth of defense spending, and whatever might be left of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP).

One reason why the cuts were so deep: the Tea Party’s budget adds to the deficit by keeping faith with Republicans on bills they’ve opposed. “Obamacare”? Gone, despite the cost savings. Social Security? Optionally privatized for workers under thirty, who would immediately start tak- ing money out of the system. The Bush tax cuts survived in toto. The Tea Party expects what Republican leaders and old hands like Grover Norquist expect. No new taxes. No old taxes. Keep the revenue stream as thin as possible— that’s how you make entitlement cuts and massive discretionary cutbacks inevitable.

But the movement has much larger dreams than that. The ideas hashed out at Americans for Prosperity’s summit included things that haven’t gotten anywhere in Congress, like the land sales, and bills that have been introduced but then have moldered in the lower house’s slush pile.

The strongest item in that ledger is the REINS Act. (REINS: Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny.) There may be no purer Tea Party legislation out there. It was dreamed up by Lloyd Rogers, a retired judge from Campbell County, Kentucky, population 90,336. In August 2009, deep into the Obama backlash, Rogers met with Representative Geoff Davis and gave him a piece of paper with a new proposed law on it:

All rules, regulations, or mandates that require citizens, state, or local government financial expenditures must first be approved by the U.S. Congress before they can become effective.

Davis started editing. His version of the REINS Act requires a vote within seventy days of any rule coming to Congress (if no vote occurs, the proposed rule is automatically rejected), and limits the law to rules expected to have an impact larger than $100 million. It made it into the GOP’s 2010 campaign manifesto, the Pledge to America. When Rand Paul arrived in the Senate, he sponsored the upper house’s version. This is model legislation, a perfect example of how the Tea Party expects Republicans to govern if they win. Anything less than a top-to-bottom rethink of post-1933 federalism is unacceptable.

If there’s a paucity of innovative, incentive-tweaking public policy ideas here, that’s the intent. The Tea Party wants deconstruction, not some 1994-style Republican agenda, all marginal revisions and government reform. According to its own internal history, the movement was created as a reaction to George W. Bush’s version of the GOP; all those compromises on No Child Left Behind, TARP, and Medicare were sellouts, things for the GOP to atone for. Under Bush, Republicans worked quietly to hamper the growth of unions; a bill proposed by Tea Party House freshman Trey Gowdy would simply eliminate the National Labor Relations Board altogether.

The goal of government, come 2013, should be to erase what the government has been doing. The only new government function that’s gotten a hearing in the movement is a “reverse appropriations committee,” an idea that Rand Paul and others took from the 1980s, which would assign senators to find spending to cut. The movement’s ideal budget reform: zero-based budgeting. If that were enacted, every year’s appropriation process would start with no funding for any discretionary program.

Oh, there are limits. In polls, the Tea Party’s membership reveals itself as naive about what costs what. There’s boundless enthusiasm for foreign aid cuts, but the same people who cheer for those budgets to be slashed will then boo in agreement whenever Romney denounces the Medicare cost reductions in “Obamacare.”

That’s where the full-time Tea Party agitators come in. That’s how the industry-funded groups find their opening to tell the base what it cares about. The Tea Party’s grassroots apparatus peaked in 2010. The think tanks funded by the energy industry or the banking sector are thriving, and they know what they want the base to work toward. Deregulation, scaled-back appropriations, sold-off public goods—if the Tea Party wins, it’ll be expected to provide the public pressure for all of it.

[Return to What if Obama Loses: Imagining the consequences of a GOP victory]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

David Weigel reports on politics and policy for Slate.