The tea partiers get smarter in undermining health care reform.
But the protesters had advice for Republicans, too. In meetings with staffers for Sens. DeMint, Jonny Isaacson, and Saxby Chambliss, the message was the same: delay, delay, delay. Liberals might accuse the GOP of stonewalling. But from the tea partiers' perspective, the GOP hasn't been doing nearly enough to stall the bill. "This could be three weeks behind where it is now," says Meckler. The Senate has all kinds of procedural rules Republicans could be exploiting. For example, the quorum rule. The Senate technically requires that a quorum of 51 senators be present to conduct business. Minority parties typically consent to dispensing with the quorum call, just to speed things along. But if there's only a handful of senators on the floor at any given moment, Republicans could start objecting. That's just one of many possible stalling tactics. (See a good overview here.)
All of this said, there is still a contingent of tea partiers who are doing their part to ensure the movement is not taken seriously. Before the rally, a group of singers was belting out a health care themed rendition of "The 12 Days of Christmas." The last verse went:
"On the 10th day of Christmas, Obama gave to me:/ High unemployment,/ No end to earmarks,/ Mandating health care,/ Czars with power,/ Bankruptcy looming,/ No Transpaaaaareeeencyyyy,/ Fed printing dollars,/ Big bailouts,/ Welfare for all,/ And the loss of liberty."
"This is gonna be on Glenn Beck!" the organizer, Steve Haimbaugh, promised. The usual silly posters were there, too, including one that labeled the Democratic plan "Gulag Care." And FreedomWorks founder Dick Armey did little to diminish the movement's reputation by referring to cable-TV host Rachel "Maddox."
The movement must also contend with a lack of focus. Tea partiers are generally for small government, against taxes, and pro-"freedom." But they have nothing resembling a platform, and their popular image has been more about opposing Obama than advocating realistic alternatives. (Abolishing the Fed does not count.) Indeed, their organizational structure practically forbids it. As Meckler explained, the grassroots group Tea Party Patriots has no real leaders. If its constituents want to endorse a candidate, they'll endorse a candidate. If they want to form a PAC, they'll form a PAC. But the notion that this can be done without creating a hierarchy has yet to be tested. Meckler told me to read this book and it will all make sense. I hope he's right.
Correction, Dec. 16, 2009: This article mistakenly identified Eric Cantor as House minority leader. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of health care protesters by John Moore/Getty Images.