Republican presidential debate: How the Tea Party took over one political party and one cable network.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 12 2011 6:54 PM

America's Tea Party Network

How the Tea Party Express took over both the Republican Party and CNN.

Sarah Palin speaks at a Tea Party Express rally. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin speaks at a Tea Party Express rally

CNN's coverage of Monday's CNN/Tea Party Express Republican presidential debate was anchored all day by special coverage of the Tea Party movement, documentaries about where it came from, and steady commentary from CNN's in-house Tea Party star, Dana Loesch, whose Twitter feed has taken on the feel of one of those "They're Just Like Us!" spreads in US Weekly.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Huntsman will be swinging by the tent soon.

Huntsman just walked in to makeup. I think he's competing with Cain for the youngest entourage.

Just met Huntsman. Nice guy. Wouldn't vote for him but nice guy.

The Tea Party Express debate features questions from real, live Tea Party activists. The questions-from-real-Americans debate format isn't new. What's new, we're told, is the hands-on involvement of America's grassroots-iest conservative movement. What's actually happening is the culmination of a few decisions that made the Tea Party into what it is today—a wing of the GOP that attracts cameras like a massive electromagnet.

There are Tea Partiers who wince when they think about this. Tea Party Patriots, the most disaggregated of all the movement's organizations, is not present in Tampa, Fla. Mark Meckler, the group's co-chairman, offered a crisp "no comment" when asked why. For him, it's rhetorical question. In the early days of the movement, Meckler and other Tea Party leaders viewed the Tea Party Express (TPX for short) as a rehab center for Republican strategists—which, in a way, it was. In 2009, the brains behind the middling Our Country Deserves PAC—most famous for a post-2008 election ad thanking Sarah Palin for being herself—realized that the "Tea Party" was seeding some fertile, unclaimed territory.

"We have to be very very careful about discussing amongst ourselves anyone we include 'outside of the family,' " wrote OCDPAC's Joe Wierzbicki in an organizing memo obtained by Politico's Ken Vogel, "because quite frankly, we are not only NOT part of the political establishment or conservative establishment, but we are also sadly not currently a part of the 'tea party' establishment."

The movement, in listservs and in interviews with the press, started an internal argument that never quite finished. A former flight attendant, Amy Kremer, was pushed out of Tea Party Patriots for the crime of joining the TPX's first tour. It was an irresistible story of "Tea Party tension." It wasn't hype: There was tension. There would be a lawsuit filed against Kremer. "They are … working to position themselves as *THE* Tea Party Movement Spokespeople, for the purpose of gaining gravitas, for the purpose of raising funds, TO SUPPORT THEMSELVES," wrote California Tea Party activist Laura Boatright in an October 2009 email about the controversy, on the Tea Party Patriots listserv. "It's a BUSINESS for them. They make their living doing it. And building a reputation is important to their success, and FUTURE PROCEEDS."

For some Tea Party activists, joining up with TPX meant losing the movement's innocence. It meant becoming partisan, getting wrapped up in the mania of national politics, getting wedded to the GOP.

"Supporting candidates was not what the Tea Party was about," says Judy Holloway, who co-founded the Austin (Texas) Tea Party Patriots in 2009 and raged against the rise of TPX. "Now, it's been overtaken by the Republican Party." She shut down the local organization in March 2011, turning her effort to local issues, still annoyed at the fundraising and candidate-endorsing turn the Tea Party had taken. "I think … I can't tell you what I really think."

Holloway and her like minds were the exception; the TPX enjoyed more and more success. One big reason for that was that CNN started embedding with the TPX tours. At an April 2009 Tea Party, the network's Susan Roesgen started challenging the premises of activists, and spotlighting one protester who compared Obama to Hitler. She was eased out of her job. The crackdown was followed by glasnost; reporter Shannon Travis climbed on the bus, getting regular interviews with activists and defending the movement from attacks.

"Being at a Tea Party rally is not quite like seeing it on TV, in newspapers or online," Travis wrote in an April 2010 article that went viral. "That's the reason CNN is covering this political movement—and doing so in ways few others can or choose to do." He ran down a list of things the rest of the media was leaving out: "Patriotic signs professing a love for country; mothers and fathers with their children; African-Americans proudly participating; and senior citizens bopping to a hip-hop rapper."

So began the CNN-TPX romance, to be consummated tonight in prime time. The movement's skeptics were partly wrong, partly right, about the effects. It did not make the Tea Party look partisan. The TPX's leaders were reliable critics of the GOP, who would endorse candidates that Karl Rove didn't like—Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle. The rallies were wonderfully random affairs—no one who's seen the cowboy-hat-clad singer Lloyd Marcus sell CDs of his "Tea Are the World" singalong, or heard him write Tea Party lyrics to "New York, New York," could think "Wow, that's one well-oiled Republican machine."

What were the skeptics right about? By folding so neatly into the left-right framework of cable news, the TPX helped the Tea Party become what it is today. No one wonders anymore how to define the Tea Party, or whether it will break up American politics as we know it. The debate is whether the Republican Party is an arm of the Tea Party, or the other way around. A movement that grew out of anti-TARP, anti-American Recovery Act anger was mostly tamed. Tonight, says TPX's political guru Sal Russo, the group has encouraged CNN to ask more economic questions, fewer questions about social and foreign policy wedge issues. This is what Tea Partiers want to ask; it's also what every Republican campaign, so very, very tired of questions about evolution and poll numbers, wants to be asked.

"We would like to find more Democrats to endorse," says Russo. "But it's hard to find any that are opposing Obama's policies. We will find more when there is a Republican President, just like the Boll Weevils during Reagan's tenure."

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