The "Taxpayer March on Washington" proved that conservatives can turn out in impressive numbers to protest the direction of the Democratic-led federal government, but it also presented Republicans with a tricky task in figuring out how to marshal the energy on display on the Mall Saturday.
The ability to channel the wide-ranging frustrations expressed by speaker after speaker may determine whether beleaguered conservatives will be able to create a movement rivaling that which liberals used to help power Democrats back into the majority in the 2006 congressional elections and Barack Obama into the White House last year.
The sentiments expressed Saturday, however, suggest Republicans can’t necessarily count on the tens of thousands of protesters who turned out in Washington – and at simultaneous rallies in Dallas, Denver, Quincy, Ill., and other cities and towns across the nation – to make inroads in the 2010 congressional midterm elections and, later, to mount a stiff challenge to President Obama’s 2012 reelection effort.
Many marchers displayed little allegiance to Republicans, and some were openly hostile, contending that that when the party controlled Washington until 2006, the federal government spent recklessly.
"When Republicans were in power, they acted like everyone else," said marcher Debi Bohannon of Oklahoma City.
"Personally, I don’t feel like [Republicans] are standing up and fighting hard enough,” said Jim Bryant, an aviation consultant from Trenton, Georgia. “I want them to stand up for truth, honesty, and personal freedoms.”
The protestors, whose numbers were in the tens of thousands, though no definitive estimate was available Saturday evening, aired grievances on issues ranging from the bank and auto bailouts to Obama’s push to overhaul the nation's health system to concerns about perceived erosion of First and Second Amendment rights.
Still, most of their fire was aimed at Democrats, and some of their sentiments bordered on extremist rhetoric that could do the GOP more harm than good. As the march, which began at Freedom Plaza, a park close to the White House, neared the U.S. Capitol, it was difficult to miss the signs protesting Obama’s health plan, declaring “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy” or featuring grizzly images of aborted fetuses. And there were widespread accusations from attendees that Obama isn’t American-born – a charge from which the mainstream of the Republican Party has sought to distance itself.
But as the last of the protesters scattered Saturday evening, leaving the Mall silent, organizers expressed confidence that the march would help re-center the Republican Party around fiscally conservative themes with widespread appeal.
“My message is: your roots are lower taxes, less government, and freedom. Why don’t you lead with those issues?” said Adam Brandon, a spokesman for FreedomWorks, the small-government, anti-tax organization chaired by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey that sponsored the protest.
Brandon touted the text-messaging system FreedomWorks deployed on Saturday to gauge protestors’ top issues, explaining the group would use the information to organize activists around those issues by congressional district in the run-up to the 2010 election, a similar technique to one used by Obama’s own tech-savvy presidential campaign.
After Saturday’s showing, the grassroots local activists who form the heart of the so-called Tea Party movement hold more of the cards than either the Republican Party or the conservative groups that bolster it, asserted GOP strategist Craig Shirley.
“Could the Republican National Committee turn out 50,000 people on the mall?” asked Shirley, who has a forthcoming book, “Rendezvous with Destiny; Ronald Reagan and the Campaign that Changed America,” chronicles how Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign re-centered the GOP around a strong national defense and fiscal conservatism.
“Really the tea party is in the position to dictate terms to the Republican Party. So the question for the Tea Party people is do they say, ‘A pox on all their houses,’ and possibly investigate starting a third party – a populist, anti-big government, anti-Wall Street party – or do they try to take over the Republican Party, starting at the county and state level?”
Still, Shirley suggested that in order for the movement to have a lasting impact on American politics, it needs to embrace an agenda, rather than just oppose the Democratic one. “At some point, that will come,” he predicted.
Only a handful of GOP lawmakers were on the roster of rally speakers – and those that did were conservatives like South Carolina Sen. Sen. DeMint, and Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Pence of Indiana, and Tom Price of Georgia.
The common thread among the speakers, both the politicians and the leaders of various conservative groups, many of them with a libertarian tilt, was an assertion of American decline, and that the assembled protesters were the nation’s best hope of correcting course and reconnecting with its traditional values. But the values varied from speaker to speaker, with many concerned about fiscal failings, while others stressed individual rights and others warned of a descent into Socialism and a loss of the “American way.”
Most all of them, though, portrayed the assembled as the first line of defense against these varied national ailments. Rep. Blackburn told the crowd that “You have been called to serve liberty and to defend the futures of our children and grandchildren,” and Rep. Price told them that “"a new generation of patriots has emerged. You are those patriots."
Republican Party leaders seemed optimistic Saturday that they could harness the energy, which first emerged as widespread in February, when tens of thousands turned out to Tea Party protests around the country, leading to a larger turnout at Tax Day Tea Parties on April 15, and attracting even more attention this summer, when angry constituents turned out in droves to during the recently concluded congressional summer recess to voice their displeasure with their federal lawmakers.
“If the Republican Party will carry the banner for the people who are here today, I think the majority of Americans will come with us and I just hope the rest of the Republicans here in congress will be smart enough to see that,” Sen. DeMint told Fox News television host Glenn Beck – who has emerged as perhaps the star of the movement – during a special Saturday afternoon broadcast timed to coincide with the march.
DeMint, whose political action committee was a co-sponsor of the march, told Beck before his speech, “I really do believe that in 2006 and 2008, Republicans didn't just lose our right to govern, we lost our way. I mean, we lost those elections because we walked away from the principles that had drawn hundreds of thousands of people in the nation's capitol, to the tea parties all across the country and town hall meetings.”
But Beck seemed unconvinced, telling DeMint and Rep. Pence, who appeared with DeMint on Beck’s show via satellite before speaking to the rally – that the national Republican Party had yet to reach “a pivot point.”
“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” said Beck, “and I can tell you the moment I said ‘enough. I have to change my life or I will die.’ And I have not seen that from the Republican Party.”
Americans, Beck said, believe that Republicans have lost their way and that – even when they oppose Obama’s plans – they are doing so for political motivations, not philosophical ones.
“I don't care who you vote for. I really don't,” Beck said in introducing DeMint and Pence. “Vote for Republicans, Vote for a Democrat. I think, quite frankly, you vote for either of them right now, and you still haven't gotten it. And, they are both taking us into a land of gigantic government where they control everything through corruption and everything else.”
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the difficulty Republicans will have in winning over the Tea Party activists than their adulation of Beck, whose fiery populist rhetoric often attracts controversy.
At Saturday’s rally, some waved “Glenn Beck for President” signs and many activists attribute the idea for – and energy behind – the marches to Beck. During a March broadcast, he unveiled what he called The 9-12 Project 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.”
As they marched today, the activists -- who chanted, “We own the dome,” while pointing at the Capitol -- sounded that same note.