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Nervous About Health Care, Tea Partiers Look to 2010


Connecticut resident Tom Hill poses with a homemade sign. The other side featured a health care message for Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). (Photo by David Weigel)

Tom Hill’s massive sign–a white sheet taped onto a fishing pole–said it all. On one side, in thin black letters, Hill had written “STAND FIRM WITH JOE,” a call for solidarity with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). When Hill–who lives in Connecticut–had written that, he thought Lieberman was going to block the Senate version of health care reform. Then, shortly before the 1:30 p.m. anti-health care reform rally outside of the Senate, Hill found out that Lieberman’s objection to Medicare expansion had been answered, and the bill would get his support. He crossed out his old letters and wrote “JOE’S A SKUNK! CAVED IN TO PRESSURE.”

“They put pressure on his wife, and he loves his wife, and he’s not much into the politics of personal destruction,” said Hill, looking grim. “Sixty votes doesn’t frickin’ matter. They’re gonna do it with 51. Here’s the deal–they’re either gonna shove it down our throats with 60 or up our butts with 51.”

[GOP]Around 3,000 conservative activists spent Tuesday on Capitol Hill, jamming into the offices of their senators–occasionally getting lengthy, friendly meetings with Republicans–and crowding outside the Senate for a rally sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks, and numerous Tea Party groups. Many had taken buses from states like North Carolina and Georgia. The crowd was as punchy, as high-stakes in its rhetoric, as it had been any of the anti-spending, anti-Democratic Party events that have defined 2009 for conservatives. It was home, however, to some real pessimism about whether opponents of a health care reform bill could really stop the legislation. Optimism inside the Capitol and at the “Code Red” rally focused instead on the 2010 midterm elections, and the chance conservatives will have to punish the Democrats.

Anger at Lieberman–seen by Tea Party activists as much as liberals as an unpredictable actor whose decisions will make or break reform–was universal. After objecting to a public option, then a Medicare expansion, on Tuesday Lieberman signaled that he would support a bill that lacked those features. From the stage of the “Code Red” rally, Tea Party Patriots leaders Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler reported that they had tried to park themselves in Lieberman’s office until the senator showed up.

“They told us he was unavailable, and we said ‘That’s okay, we’ll wait,’” said Meckler. “And after about three minutes the staffer came out and said, ‘You’re going to have to leave. And we said, ‘This is a public office!’ And they said, ‘You’re going to have to leave, or we’re going to have you arrested.’” The crowd–which included one activist holding a sign that asked Lieberman to “be a mensch and vote against the government takeover of health care”–booed lustily at this story of petty tyranny.

“What do you think of American citizens threatened with arrest for visiting Senator Lieberman’s office?” asked Meckler. “What do you think of your representatives threatening to arrest American citizens while bringing terrorists onto American soil? Those senators are terrorizing American citizens!”

Meckler’s story, and the crowd’s reaction, was a far cry from the attitude that had opened the day. The 8:45 a.m. start of office-to-office lobbying had been promoted as a “die-in,” during which Tea Party activists would “go inside the Senate offices and hallways, and play out the role of patients waiting for treatment in government controlled medical facilities,” and after a while “pretend to die from our untreated illnesses and collapse on the floor.” As a small crowd of activists gathered for the “die-in,” however, none of them wanted to go the full guerrilla protest. Martin told them to be polite, and on the way out, some told TWI that they’d been rewarded with face-to-face time with their senators.

“We met with [Sen. Johnny] Isakson,” said Brad Parsons, a Georgia Tea Party activist, after leaving the Senate offices. “We talked for around 45 minutes, and he made more a lot optimistic about how certain senators are going to vote–which Democrats are still on the fence.”

Still, the late-breaking news that Lieberman would likely not filibuster a compromise bill angered and disappointed activists.

“I call him the Empty Yarmulke,” said Frederick Peterson, a Connecticut activist who’d come down to D.C. to lobby his senator. “It’s the same thing he did during the Clinton impeachment–gave one of the best speeches I’d ever heard, beautiful soaring rhetoric, rabbinical, and then he said, no, I’m not going to vote to remove him from office. You lift up the yarmulke and there’s nothing down there.”

The disappointment spread to the conservative celebrities who came to the “Code Red” rally (to signify the state of emergency) to psyche up the troops. Laura Ingraham, the syndicated radio host, arrived at the roped-off section next to the stage in one of the red “Freedom Czar” fleeces sold on her website, and proceeded to sign autographs and pose for photos. After signing a “Palin 2012″ baseball cap, however, she dodged a friendly question from an activist and moved back toward the stage.

“What’s going to happen with the health care?” the fan asked.

“I don’t know,” shrugged Ingraham. Introduced by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)–an unannounced guest at the rally who inspired the loudest cheers of the day–she treated the crowd to an alternately jokey and stirring speech, beginning with a retelling of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and ending with a history lesson about the founding fathers.

While organizers and some activists were more optimistic about their chances of stopping a health care bill, some of their rhetoric put victory in the past tense–they’d won already by scaring the Democrats and delaying the bill. “Nancy Pelosi wanted to pass this bill on August 1!” said Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). The more pessimistic activists looked ahead to other Democratic priorities that they could stop in the Senate, and looked to the 2010 elections as a chance to take power away from the Democrats.

“I think we’ll take back the House,” said Curt Compton, a West Virginia activist who’d been unemployed since the start of summer. “Some people say we can take the Senate, although I’m not quite as optimistic about that yet.” The prospect of stopping the Democrats excited him more than the prospect of Republican victories. “They’re what we’ve got to work with,” he said.

Andy, a North Carolina activist who hoisted a sign that read “American Capitalism: 1492-2009 RIP,” suggested that a Republican Congress could start repealing Obama’s agenda in 2011 if they took power in the midterms. “That’s what happened with Clinton,” he said.

The more optimistic activists were already looking ahead to 2012. When the soft-spoken Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) took the stage–introduced by Bachmann as “our champion”–some in the crowd yelled “run for president!” Tom Hill, the disappointed Connecticut voter, used the other side of his huge sign to send Bachmann herself a message.

“PALIN/BACHMANN 2012: They’ll wring out the socialist mop!”

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