When Jason Pye heard that Newt Gingrich was getting involved with the April 15 Tea Parties, he knew what he had to do. He stepped aside.
“Bringing in someone like Gingrich takes away from the message,” said Pye, a Libertarian Party activist and writer who lives in the suburbs outside Georgia’s capital city. “It makes the people putting together the rallies look like pawns, for lack of a better term.”
Pye was not a fair-weather Tea Party protester. He had helped organize one of the first Tea Parties, a February 27 event in Atlanta, attracting around 200 people only eight days after CNBC commentator Rick Santelli said that the president’s mortgage rescue plan made him so angry that he was ready to organize a “Chicago Tea Party.” Pye promoted that event on the Fox Business Channel. But in the weeks since, Pye saw a burgeoning movement, the sort of thing libertarians had dreamed of for years, becoming co-opted by people he didn’t respect. The tipping point came when Gingrich announced that his group American Solutions, an ostensibly grassroots group that’s funded by huge donations from conservative businessmen, was “partnering with the Tax Day Tea Party movement.”
“Newt Gingrich enabled George W. Bush,” Pye said. “He enabled the big spending. He lobbied conservative Republicans to compromise their principles and support Medicare Part D. He supported the bailout.” Pye will attend the rally to write an article, but he has not endorsed it.
In the fast-evolving Tea Party movement, Republicans, Libertarians, and conservatives of all stripes are coming to grips with the kind of organizational politics and media blowback that afflicted left-wing protests during the Bush years. Conservative and libertarian activists who had been attacking the Bush administration over spending are irked by the number of red-handed Republicans jumping onto the Tea Party bandwagon. Mainstream Republicans are pushing back against charges that they are engaging in “AstroTurf” (fake grassroots) activism and encouraging the right-wing political fringe. All of them spot an opportunity to acquire new bodies for political campaigns and new names for their mailing lists. If it means making common cause with some people they wouldn’t normally talk to, that’s what coalition-building is all about.
For all of that, Pye’s disgruntlement is an uncommon development in the Tea Party movement. Most activists talk about tomorrow’s protests as a massive coalition-building coming-out party for a “silent majority” of people opposed to government spending. They view arguments that corporate-funded groups are manufacturing the protests as hypocritical and unfair.
“If journalists actually did their job, did some journalism and reporting, and talked to local organizers, they’d see that this is a grassroots movement,” said Brendan Steinhauser of FreedomWorks, a group that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called out on Monday for “manufacturing” the protests. “If Paul Krugman doesn’t want to believe me, that’s fine. But this came from the ground up.”
At the same time, Steinhauser shared Pye’s lack of enthusiasm about Gingrich. “It’s disingenuous for him to come out and now say he’s for fiscal responsibility and against the bailouts. I’d say that [FreedomWorks President and former House Majority Leader] Dick Armey has more credibility because he was consistently against the bailouts and the spending.”
The intra-movement squabbles didn’t interest Debbie Ellis Dooley, one of four co-organizers (“the Four Musketeers”) of Atlanta’s Tea Party–an event pushed back from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. to accommodate Sean Hannity, who is scheduled to host his Fox News show from the scene. Dooley, who is also the grassroots coordinator for the Georgia branch of FreedomWorks, argued that the Republican speakers who would appear in Atlanta, including Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), would be joined by “Democrats, Libertarians and independents” in a pan-partisan bonanza. But as of Monday evening no Democrats had committed to speak. “We asked any who wanted to speak to let us know,” said Dooley. “I’m not familiar with their affiliations.”
Kingston is one of many Republican elected officials and candidates who has glommed on to the Tea Party movement, a situation that different organizers are handling in different ways. Douglas Landrum, who’s organizing a Tea Party in California’s Orange County, invited both Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) to speak, but Sanchez said she’d be out of town, leaving the stage to Rohrabacher and some other Republican candidates. “We asked them not to promote their candidacy,” said Landrum, “but to stick to the issues of keeping the taxes low and repealing the pork.” Andrew Langer, an employee of the Institute for Liberty who is organizing a Tea Party in Washington, D.C., invited frequent presidential candidate and Obama critic Alan Keyes to speak but is leaving the speech up to him. “He can take the opportunity and run with it,” said Langer. “What was most important was getting an energetic speaker who could get the crowd pumped and articulate his principles, and Alan Keyes is going to do that.”
At one of two Birmingham, Ala. Tea Parties, attendees will hear from Tim James, a Republican candidate for governor in 2010. James intends to “tie the national and the state situations together,” said campaign manager Brent Hall, “and he has credibility because he led the charge against tax increases here.” The campaign could help out James’ campaign, said Hall, because “when we go these events, we harvest names and email addresses from people to keep them up to date on what we’re doing.”
There has been an alternative response to Republican speaking requests: Blow them off. That was what Eric Odom, the Republican web guru who runs the umbrella site TaxDayTeaParty.com, did when Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele asked to speak at the Odom’s Tea Party in Chicago. “It’s not that Steele is unwelcome in Chicago,” said Odom. “The Chicago Tea Party is not an opportunity for them–politicians–to speak to us. It’s an opportunity to speak to them. Michael Steele would be absolutely welcome to come and listen to what we have to say. ”
According to RNC spokesman Jon Thompson, Steele “will be in an all day political event that has been on the books for a while, so he will not be able to attend the Chicago Tea Party.”
Some Tea Party organizers are discovering what liberals discovered in the anti-Iraq War protests of 2002 through 2008 and fretting about how to avoid fringe activists from taking over the events. In Burleston, Texas, one Tea Party will be run by self-described secessionists. In Pensacola, Florida, a planned Tea Party has fractured over the involvement of Ron Paul supporters and 9/11 conspiracy theorists. “At any big gathering you’ll have fringe elements show up,” said Andrew Langer with a shrug. He plans to bring “big blue arrows” marked “Tea Party crasher” to point at any fringe protesters or infiltrators who show up at the event in Washington.
FreedomWorks’ Steinhauser was ready for the “fringe” attacks, having “spent a lot of time inside the peace movement, seeing how it worked.” The anti-war movement’s experiences, he hoped, would help the Tea Party organizers avoid some mistakes.
“We’re applying Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals’ here,” said Steinhauser. “We’re using methods that the Left has used, and that other movements have used, all the way back to the Civil Rights movement. First of all there has to be a real grievance, and that’s what Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King had. That’s what we have.”
Odom has outflanked the “fringe” criticism by branding the Tea Parties, on his site and on the widget provided to the affiliates, as a moment when tax protesters will be a “Silent Majority No More!” President Obama’s high poll numbers, Odom said, are not proof that his opponents make up the political minority. “There’s no question that many, many Americans have voted irresponsibly,” he said. “Many have voted for the prettiest yard signs and the TV commercials they saw the most. Mistakes have been made in the electoral process.”
While some of the preliminary Tea Party events have been aimed at convincing Congress that the country was turning against spending–such as a campaign to send tea bags to Capitol Hill, egged on by a motivational speaker who dressed up as “Thomas Paine” — Wednesday’s events will feature recruitment efforts by many of the co-sponsoring groups. Gingrich’s American Solutions has provided online talking point “tool kits” for attendees. Orange County activists will draft attendees for a campaign against Proposition 1A, a measure to extend tax increases. This did not surprise Jon Henke, a Republican strategist who has defended the Tea Parties against “AstroTurf” charges. “Every time a new, significant energy arises,” said Henke, “these groups will try to to leverage it for their own benefit or try to help it along.”
“I think of what General Yamamoto said after he had been told of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” said Debbie Ellis Doobey. “He said, ‘They’ve just succeeded in awakening a sleeping giant.’ I think that is what is happening now, the awakening of a Silent Majority.”