NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The “tea party” activists all agree: Government is too big. Spending is out of control. Individual freedom is at risk. And President Barack Obama’s policies are making it all worse.
But that’s where the consensus ends among the diverse groups of frustrated Americans who count themselves part of this fledgling coalition.
“We’re afraid and we’re fed up and we’re angry,” says Donna Henton of Blair, Neb. “But where this is going to go, we just don’t know.”
If the people attending the first national “tea party” convention here are uncertain, imagine the difficulties of the Republican and Democratic parties, both of which are trying to leverage this antiestablishment energy for their own gain. How it works out could make a big difference in elections this fall and beyond.
Here’s what’s clear: This is pure people-driven politics facilitated by the Internet. This is an ideological mix of libertarianism and conservatism with the common denominator being lower spending and smaller government. This is a loose collection of citizen groups with no leader but many voices. And this is the product of long-simmering anger.
Is it just a blip? Or will it emerge as a lasting political powerhouse shaping elections and government for years to come?
“This movement is beginning to mature … not as a third party but a force to be reckoned with in the traditional party structure,” declared Mark Skoda, a talk radio host who founded a Memphis “tea party” group and helped organize the convention.
Yet, candidates who have adopted the “tea party” slogan are running as independents in campaigns nationwide. There are “tea party” groups that insist the convention hosts don’t speak for them. And viewpoints among attendees here vary.
Loren and Dora Nelson of Seattle, a couple in their 80s, see the coalition as a way to strengthen the GOP. “It’s giving voice to the grass roots in the Republican Party,” the husband said.
But it’s not about ideology — or necessarily even party politics — for Eileen Million, 50, from Huntsville, Ala. “It’s a people movement,” she said. “Republican or Democrat, I don’t care who they are if they truly represent the will of the American people.”
Ty Reynolds, 34, of Topeka, Kan., put it this way: “It’s about individual liberty vs. government control. Leave me alone and stop taxing me so much and be responsible stewards of the people’s money.”
In Washington, both major parties have struck a cautious stance, seemingly not sure what to make of the coalition but nonetheless trying to use it.
Republicans have sought to cajole the coalition into the GOP fold. Party Chairman Michael Steele has even called himself a member. The GOP knows that a conservative third party could threaten Republicans’ electoral chances by splitting the right-flank vote and triggering Democratic victories. It happened in an upstate New York congressional race last fall.
Democrats, at times, have sought to demonize the coalition, casting it as an extreme right-wing part of the GOP. But Obama, himself, has stepped lightly, mindful that the members’ anger is real, they hold allegiance to no political party and among their ranks are independent voters and even moderate Democrats.
What’s taking place is at least somewhat similar to other modern political uprisings including the supporters of businessman Ross Perot in the 1990s. Less organized, there was the “silent majority” of middle America that rallied behind Richard Nixon two decades earlier. Much like the “tea party” contingent, those voters were largely white and middle class, a demographic Obama didn’t win during the 2008 campaign and has struggled to win over since he took office.
“Tea parties” popped up last spring in small towns and big cities alike as disillusioned Americans — many never before involved in politics — protested the $787 billion economic stimulus measure, Wall Street bailouts and Obama’s health care plan.
Since then, local leaders have struggled over the coalition’s direction. There’s even dispute over the name’s origin: It was drawn from the 1773 tax revolt, or it’s an acronym for “taxed enough already.”
The coalition was tagged as extremist because of disruptions during health care town hall meetings last summer and signs like “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy” that sprouted at a Washington rally last fall following Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death. And, while it claimed credit for Republican Scott Brown’s surprise win for Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat last month, several “tea party”-backed candidates came up short in Illinois primary races this week.
The convention itself has had its controversies. It’s a for-profit gathering organized by Nashville lawyer Judson Phillips at the sprawling Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, where vendors hawk mementos that include tea-bag necklaces for $89.99.
Some would-be attendees balked at the $549 ticket price and Sarah Palin’s $100,000 fee to give the keynote address Saturday night, worried the cost was sullying the grass-roots image and preventing activists from attending. Two featured speakers — Republican Reps. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — pulled out, citing ethics concerns.
Still, the three-day event for some 600 people is intended to try to turn grass-roots activism into ballot-box achievement. It includes sessions about involving young people in the conservative movement, using primaries to defeat liberalism and unifying the movement’s many groups.
To try to add some structure to the coalition, Skoda announced creation of the Ensuring Liberty Corp., and an affiliated political action committee aimed at electing up to 20 candidates this fall who advocate less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states’ rights and strong national security.
“This is about giving voice to a people who don’t feel they’re being represented by either party. But it’s too early to tell how this is all actually going to play out,” said Nancy Hiser, 26 and from Findlay, Ohio. “The only consensus here is that everyone is probably opposed to the Obama agenda.”