On Tax Day, a Tea Party in the Shadow of Capitol Hill


In honor of tax day, the Tea Party Express took its show to Washington, where its anti-tax festivities dovetailed nicely into a conservative rally for the 2010 midterm elections in November.

Kicking off with a 9:00 am press conference at the National Press Club, the group's leadership wasted no time in laying out their agenda, which -- in the words of Amy Kremer, Director of Grassroots and Coalitions -- includes "change" and "getting involved in the election process." Firmly maintaining that "TPX" is populist, not political, Mark Williams, a conservative talk show host and chairman of the group, told the crowd, "Please don't tell me I'm a Republican tool."

Tool or not, it's hard to divorce TPX from the party of Goldwater, Reagan and Gingrich. This may have to do with TPX's political agenda, defined in part by its list of "Heroes and Targets." One of the big heroes is Sharon Angle, a Reno, Nevada assemblywoman who hopes to challenge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. Reid, of course, is one of the group's targets, along with Senators Blanche Lincoln and Arlen Specter and Congressmen Betsy Markey, Barney Frank and Alan Mollohan, among others.

On the Plaza

After the press conference, the Tea Party Express chugged down to Freedom Plaza, a broad, open expanse located a few short blocks from the White House. Named in honor of Martin Luther King, who wrote his "I Have a Dream" speech in the nearby Willard Hotel, Freedom Plaza is popular with political protesters, who can gesture angrily at both the White House and the Capitol. In the smallish confines of the plaza, a few hundred can look like a thousand and a few thousand can look like a mob.

At the rally, Kremer reiterated TPX's claim to non-partisanship, telling the crowd, "This is not about being a Democrat or a Republican, it's about being an American," and that "If you wait until November you're going to be voting for the lesser of two evils." Again, however, the non-partisan facade showed a few cracks when it came to the crowd, which carried banners reading "Traitor! Impeach Obama!" and the Biblical-sounding "November Cometh Liberals Goeth."

And it's hard to see the Tea Party Express as a non-partisan group when one considers that its tour kicked off in Senator Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nevada with a 9,000-person rally against the Democratic Senator. In the ensuing weeks, it has made its way across the country, traipsing through much of the Southwest, the Midwest and the Rust Belt before dropping into Boston for a 5,000-person protest on Boston Commons. Conservative sweetheart Sarah Palin showed up for that one, accompanied by a motley crew of talk radio hosts and c-list television stars, including the guy who played "Benny" on Home Improvement and Victoria Jackson, the blowsy, squeaky-voiced blonde who left Saturday Night Live at about the same time that Bill Clinton entered the White House. Scott Brown, Massachusetts' alleged rebuttal to the liberalism of Ted Kennedy, was notably absent.

A New Group of Protesters

With or without Brown, the Tea Party Express has cobbled together a coalition of malcontents who bear little resemblance to America's usual protesters. For most of the last hundred years, demonstrations have been dominated by fringe groups: wobblies and yippies, immigrants and ghetto dwellers, the poor and the underclass. By comparison, the majority of people involved in Tea Party activities are solidly middle class and mainstream: according to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 88% of Tea Partiers are white, 77% voted for John McCain, 74% are Republican, and 82% have a negative opinion of the Democratic party. The Tea Party protests appeal to a group that, forty years ago, may have been more likely to share a beer with Archie Bunker, watching on TV while the police used dogs and water cannons to disperse complainers. So what has put them on the other side of the barricades?

The simple answer is taxes, or at least that seems to be the message of the "Don't Tread on Me" flags and "Taxation without Representation" rhetoric that show up at Tea Party gatherings. Of course, the original 1773 Tea Party -- from which the group gets its name -- had a lot to do with taxes, and some TPX enthusiasts have claimed that "Tea" stands for "Taxed Enough Already."

On the other hand, for many of the group's members, taxes aren't the biggest concern. According to a poll conducted by CBS and The New York Times, 52% of Tea Partiers claim that their taxes are not excessive. Given that taxes are supposed to be the central unifying factor in TPX, this number is surprisingly high, especially when the same poll showed that 62% of the general public -- only 10% more -- feels the same way.

In a recent article, Fox News explored the Tea Party's growing fragmentation, noting that the group has become a lightning rod for all manner of conservative fringe elements, some of whom claim that Obama was not born in the U.S., that he is a closet Muslim or a Lenin-worshiping Communist, and that his health care program will include "Death Panels."

Asked about TPX's more wild-eyed members, Chairman Williams noted that their rhetoric "pales in comparison" to the protests that occurred during the Bush Presidency. Speaking about questions over Obama's citizenship, Williams seemed eager to retain the support of the birthers, while trying to disassociate himself from their claims: "I don't think it's mainstream Tea Party thought... It's an interesting constitutional exercise to wonder about and talk about it, but it's a dead end in terms of getting anything accomplished."

Even as the seams begin to show, the Tea Party Express is gaining real political power. Thanks in no small part to the thousands who turn out for its rallies, TPX controls a political war chest of over $3 million, which it plans to spend in the weeks leading up to November's elections. Yet, while the Tea Partiers seize their place at the political table, it remains to be seen if they can form a coherent group that can exist outside their defining obsession: their deep distrust of Barack Obama.

Additional reporting was provided by Sam Young in Washington D.C.