The tea partiers get smarter in undermining health care reform.
It's a testament to the persistence of the tea partiers—the group of mad-as-hell, not-gonna-take-it-anymore protesters who want nothing more than for government to get out of their lives and for Glenn Beck to fill the hole—that the sight of them toting signs and chanting in front of the Capitol building has become so familiar. When a couple thousand of them showed up at Upper Senate Park in Washington, D.C., Tuesday afternoon, they practically blended into the landscape.
The protest, dubbed "Code Red" due to the urgency of stopping health-reform legislation, may not have been their biggest. But if you looked closely, there were signs that the group—or, in this case, a motley collection of groups called High Noon For Healthcare —is gaining steam. For one thing, Republicans are increasingly trying to associate themselves with the movement. For another, more Democrats seem willing to hear them out.
The most prominent politician to speak at the first official D.C. tea party on April 15 was Alan Keyes. Glenn Beck's 9/12 protest featured a smattering of conservative Republicans, including Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. The tea party protest helmed by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in November featured an entire delegation of congressional Republicans, including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor *. Today's event drew many of the usual suspects, but also included Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. (DeMint was at the 9/12 protest, too.) None of these senators is especially moderate. But they are part of a body that prides itself on its collegiality. The tea partiers, needless to say, are not. (Whatever its shortcomings, you will never hear the Senate break into a chant of "Liar! Liar!") Some Republicans, such as Chris Christie in New Jersey during his campaign for governor, have therefore distanced themselves from the tea partiers. But their qualms seem to be dwindling.
One obvious reason is fundraising. Small donations underwrote the campaign of third-party challenger Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd District in November. They're also the force behind much of conservative Florida senatorial candidate Marco Rubio's fundraising. They could fund any number of candidates in 2010.
Meanwhile, tea partiers are discovering their ability to drive policy. They have no qualms about taking credit for derailing health care reform. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, noted that Obama initially wanted a bill by August. "August slipped to October, October slipped to Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving slipped to now," he said—thanks to their agitations. The goal now is to push reform over the precipice into 2010.
And that's just the beginning, say tea party leaders. In California, tea party groups are pushing a ballot initiative that would make it illegal to subtract union dues from a worker's paycheck automatically. Getting the 700,000 signatures required for a ballot item usually costs groups about $1.7 million, says Mark Meckler, a buttoned-up California lawyer who is also national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. But for the tea party network, which he says boasts a membership in the hundreds of thousands in California, the cost is nothing. "If each of my active members gets 10 people, that's enough," he says.
Democrats, too, are taking notice. In some cases, they have no choice. On Tuesday morning, Meckler and two other tea partiers from California walked into Sen. Barbara Boxer's office in the Hart Senate Office Building. The goal was to ask to see the senator and, when the expected denial came, simply to wait—thereby simulating a hospital waiting room under government-run health care. After about 20 minutes, Boxer's communications director came out and asked what he could do for them. Meckler asked to see the senator. "We don't expect her in this morning," the press officer said.
"When do you expect her?" Meckler said.
"Do not know. She may come in for votes."
" 'Do not know.' Well, I know that's not true. I know you know her schedule. Maybe you're not able to tell us. You can be honest."
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of health care protesters by John Moore/Getty Images.