Joe Wilson brought a taste of the summer’s contentious health care town halls to the floor of Congress Wednesday night, and on Saturday thousands of fired-up conservatives are planning to bring some of that anger to the streets outside the Capitol.
Borrowing tactics more familiar to protestors on the left, they’re pouring into the Washington area in hundreds of buses, newly engaged grassroots activists who plan to march down Pennsylvania Avenue and voice their mounting displeasure with their government. Their issues are a hodgepodge, ranging from the bank and auto bailouts to President Obama’s push to overhaul the nation's health system to concerns about perceived erosion of First and Second Amendment rights.
Saturday’s “Taxpayer March”– at which organizers expect anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 people – as well as dozens of smaller marches around the country, will prove that the fledgling “Tea Party” movement is real, according to Mark Williams, a conservative radio talk show host from Sacramento who is vice chairman of Our Country Deserves Better PAC, a political action committee that is co-sponsoring the march.
“If I’ve learned one thing in 30 years of doing activist talk, it’s that you can’t manufacture this kind of thing,” said Williams. “I could get on the radio and rant and rave until I was blue in the face, but if it’s not out there, it’s not going to happen.”
But whether the marchers reflect a small minority’s continuing anger over the more liberal direction the country began taking in the 2008 election or something deeper that could have repercussions in 2010 and 2012 is one of the questions the march may begin to answer.
Equally important for Republicans is whether Washington’s institutional conservative leaders and groups will be able to channel this energy to help the party’s candidates, or whether it will remain diffused, fueled by radio and television talk show hosts and susceptible to extremist positions that could do more harm than good to the GOP.
GOP strategist Craig Shirley, whose 2005 book chronicles the significance of Ronald Reagan’s failed 1976 presidential bid in reinventing the GOP, thinks the activism of the Tea Party movement could have a similar role today.
“At that point, the Republican Party was essentially an empty vessel, and the movement took its ideas and poured them into it,” Shirley said. “What we’re seeing today is somewhat analogous, but all they’re doing so far is anti-liberalism, which doesn’t necessarily have a political philosophy or an agenda of its own.”
Shirley said the Tea Party movement “can’t sustain itself just as anti-liberal movement. It’s got to evolve. And it will.”
But Sam Tanenhaus, whose recent book, “The Death of Conservatism,” traces the split in the conservative movement between “revanchist” forces and those more willing to participate in the political process, predicts the Tea Party activists won’t have much lasting impact on mainstream politics.
Instead, he compares what's happening now with the peak of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s, during Kennedy’s presidency.
“These are Americanists, is what they used to call themselves,” he said. “This is similar to that in many respects,” he asserted, explaining that the Tea Party contingent has shown the same deep suspicion towards Obama that the Birchers felt towards Kennedy.
“That’s what we’re seeing now,” he said. “They’re looking to recover a lost America.”
It was Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas Republican, who first dusted off the Tea Party nomenclature in 2007 during his bid for GOP presidential nomination, as both a fundraising technique and an homage to the 1773 Boston tax revolt that played a major role in sparking the American Revolution. Some modern conservative activists use “Tea” as an acronym for “Taxed Enough Already.”
In February, tens of thousands turned out to Tea Party protests around the country, and on April 15, tens of thousands more took to the streets for Tax Day Tea Parties. But it was last month’s congressional town halls, when constituents turned out in droves to voice their displeasure with their federal lawmakers, that drew attention to the movement.
But defining the movement beyond its generalized sense of grievance is difficult.
“Where the real problem comes in, is that – because it’s so organic – if you ask 1,000 people what this should be, you’ll get general agreement on the broader theme that we have to get the government back under control, but you’re going to get 1,000 different answers on the specifics,” said Williams, who has been traveling on the Tea Party Express, a bus caravan that started in his hometown of Sacramento and zigzagged across the country, holding rallies at 30 stops along the way.
“We don’t want to turn this into some kind of organization with a top-down hierarchy,” he said. “We want to keep it a democratic kind of organization, but people have to be herded into the same general direction, which is kind of what we’re doing here.”
There are two divergent explanations for the energy behind the marches, and they reflect two different sides of the conservative movement, each with a different vision for its future.
One is represented by FreedomWorks, the fiscally conservative non-profit group chaired Dick Armey, the former House Republican Leader turned lobbyist. It helped plan and promote the Tea Parties, town hall protests and Saturday’s march using online organizing techniques similar to those employed for years to great effect by liberal groups and more recently by Obama’s own presidential campaign. And because of its involvement, and that of other established conservative groups, many on the left have been quick to dismiss the entire movement as something manufactured by big-money Republican interests.
It was FreedomWorks that set up the main march website (which lists FreedomWorks as the lead march sponsor) and has handled the permitting and logistics for the march. By the time all the bills are paid, group officials say they expect they’ll have spent about $600,000 on everything from sound and stage equipment to port-a-potties and security, though they asked other conservative groups to chip in as much as $10,000 each to co-sponsor the event.
Though there’s been some sniping in conservatives circles about FreedomWorks’ efforts to use its infrastructure to co-opt or “own” the Tea Party movement, the group stresses that the marchers have used the group’s website and online social networks to organize themselves and plan – and fund – transportation and lodging.
“People are saying FreedomWorks is trying to jump to the front of the bus,” said FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon. “But we helped organize hundreds, if not thousands, of Tea Parties, and we helped with the town halls and we built a network and we gained some credibility as being a helpful organization to people as they wanted to get involved in activism.”
He predicted Saturday’s march would be the “largest gathering of fiscal conservatives in history” and that it would demonstrate “a new center of gravity forming in the conservative movement. The gun guys, they can turn out a crowd. The abortion guys, they can turn out a crowd. And for the first time ever, the fiscal conservatives will be able to, too.”
FreedomWorks has seen its membership and online donations spike as a result of its involvement in the Tea Party movement, Brandon said. And, he said, FreedomWorks picked September 12 for the march before the Tax Day Tea Parties to give activists something to work towards and because it was about the time Congress was scheduled to return from its summer recess.
The other version of the march’s genesis is that the popular conservative Fox News television host Glenn Beck set it in motion when he unveiled what he called The 9-12 Project during a March broadcast in which he urged viewers to try to recreate the united America that emerged the day after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“It’s not about politics,” Beck said during the March broadcast. “You actually believe in something. And you thought for a while there your politicians did as well. And now you kind of realize well, maybe they don’t.”
Beck’s 9-12 project rhetoric leans much more towards fiery populism than anything coming from FreedomWorks and, while it certainly takes Democrats – and Republicans, for that matter – to task for reckless deficit spending, it also includes a heavier element of religious and social conservatism.
Beck has voiced support for the marches and will broadcast from Washington Saturday afternoon. He even recorded a two-minute video welcoming marchers to the city though it’s unclear whether FreedomWorks will play it before the march. But he has downplayed characterizations that he’s leading the marches or the movement.
Some activists, however, look to him more than any national conservative leader or group.
“Glenn is probably the unofficial leader of the group – he doesn’t want to be, but he is – more than any national group,” said Brian Britton, who heads the Greeley, Colo. 9/12 group, which he estimates has an email list with about 400 members.
Britton and his group are going to a Saturday march in Denver, which he hopes will attract as many as 10,000 people. He sees the movement as most effective at mobilizing to affect local and state debates, and said it doesn’t lend itself to national political organizing.
“It’s like trying to harness a bees’ nest,” he said, explaining “Within our group, there are a lot of people who are just as upset at what the Republicans did when they controlled the presidency and the Congress. A lot of the people look at Washington itself as being broken.”
The schedule of speakers for the Washington march includes a handful of fiscally conservative Republican officials and conservative celebrities – such as Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina (whose political action committee is also listed as a march co-sponsor) and Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Tom Price of Georgia, as well as actor Stephen Baldwin.
But Brandon, the FreedomWorks spokesman, said the group purposefully created a speaking roster heavy on grassroots activists from around the country.
“We wanted to keep the politicians and the TV folks to a minimum and leave this to the Tea Party folks and I think that they’re going to go back even more energized than ever,” said Brandon, who plans to wear full Revolutionary War regalia to the march.
After Saturday, he said the next step would be to organize activists by congressional district around key issues of their own choosing, possibly including opposition to Democratic proposals to overhaul the nation’s health care system, and to cap and trade carbon emissions.
“Are we going to keep this movement going forever?” Brandon said. “Probably not. Every movement has its life cycle. But I think we’re at the beginning of this movement’s life cycle.”