In his latest New York Times column, Ross Douthat notes the civil war over the “GOP civil war” narrative of this election cycle, and argues the real proof of the Tea Party pudding will be in the 2016 Republican presidential campaign:

[T]here are several politicians, all elected as insurgents and all potential presidential candidates in 2016, who still aspire to be the Tea Party’s version of Obama: Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. And because each embodies different facets of the Tea Party phenomenon, each would write a very different conclusion to its story.

A Rubio victory would probably make the Tea Party seem a little less ideological in hindsight, a little more Middle American and populist, and more like a course correction after George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” than a transformative event.

A Cruz triumph would lend itself to a more ideological reading of the Tea Party’s impact, but one that fit readily into existing categories: It would suggest that Tea Party-ism was essentially the old Reagan catechism in a tricorn hat, movement conservatism under a “don’t tread on me” banner.

A Paul victory would write a starkly libertarian conclusion to the Tea Party’s story, making it seem much more revolutionary — a true break with both Reaganism and Bushism, with an uncertain future waiting beyond.

I tend to agree with Douthat on his basic point: nothing quite defines a political party like its presidential nominees, which is why presidential nominating contests are important beyond their impact on general elections. But I still think he underestimates the extent to which the GOP has already internalized the Tea Party message, even as the Tea Folk are mostly conservative “base” activists who have been radicalized in recent years. Consider this line:

[T]he one thing about Republican politics that pretty clearly wasn’t “Tea Party” was the man the G.O.P. ultimately nominated in 2012.

Is that really true? Pretty early in the 2012 cycle, Romney embraced the single most important programmatic demand of the Tea Party Movement, the Republican Study Committee’s Cut, Cap and Balance Pledge, which offered a permanent, constitutional limitation on the size and cost and therefore the functions of the federal government. And in the defining moment of the general election campaign, the 47% video, Romney embraced and articulated the resentment of “winners” against “losers” that was at the heart of the Tea Party Movement’s founding event, Rick Santelli’s Rant.

You can object that Mitt was just pandering, and didn’t really mean the things he said in those two instances, just as he really wasn’t the savage immigrant-basher he seemed to be when going after poor clueless Rick Perry–or for that matter, the Movement Conservative favorite he purported to be in 2008. But it really doesn’t matter, does it? He was pushed in that direction again and again by the prevailing winds in his party, and no matter who wins what 2014 primaries, or which flavor of tea is selling best at any given moment, the wind’s still blowing in that direction today.

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Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.