Saturday morning at the Capitol started with a bout of déjà vu: House Republicans gathering in a basement, learning that their latest shutdown demands would not be met. Around 10 a.m., when the meeting ended, Republicans had little good to say about the latest offers from the president and the Senate. Most of them avoided the cameras and returned to their offices. A handful of members spun out of the room and headed to the park on the west of the Capitol, just a couple hundred feet away.
They found sanctuary inside a small, triangle-shaped clearing blocked off by portable fences. Tea Party Patriots and FreedomWorks, two of the movement’s oldest organizing forces, had asked activists to help “fix up D.C.” by filling in for the furloughed custodians of the national mall. Glenn Beck, who’s been paid at least $1 million to work with FreedomWorks, had flown in to lead the clean-up. Utah Sen. Mike Lee, one of the capos of the “defund Obamacare” campaign, was his co-star. A hundred or so people gathered around the fences, snapping photos and listening to members of Congress update Lee and Beck.
“We were told in conference that the president wants to use the Senate to break Republicans,” Rep. Michele Bachmann told Lee. Lee explained that some silly Republicans were already willing to try to cut a deal with Obama—“trust us this time.” Beck sketched out his speech and smiled for photos with Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, who’d come wearing jeans and a green trucker’s hat that read, “VOLUNTEER.” None of them got any privacy to strategize until FreedomWorks’ outreach director Deneen Borelli stepped up to a microphone to address the crowd, the noise drowning out everything else.
“Today brings back great memories for me,” she said, “because four years ago FreedomWorks had the amazing march on D.C.—9/12. And that event drew over 800,000 freedom-loving Americans. Because of that rally I was launched as a national figure to stand for liberty.”
Anyone not at this rally would have been confused. Was Borelli, the author of Blacklash: How Obama and the Left Are Driving Americans to the Government Plantation, a “national figure?” Was it the best idea to invoke the heyday of the Tea Party, when scores more people could have flooded the space around the Capitol? Two weeks into the shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz’s “grassroots tsunami” to defund Obamacare hasn’t materialized. Polling suggests that the Republican position is waning from week to week.
The activists simply don’t believe it. Washington was occupied all weekend by conservatives who insisted that the shutdown was an act of malice by President Obama, exemplified by the closure of national monuments. “Truckers for the Constitution,” a group of conspiracy theorists who occasionally appear on Fox News, won a mind-blowing amount of media attention for an attempt to “shut down the Beltway” with their several-dozen trucks. The Values Voter Summit, an annual meeting of social conservatives, made light of the shutdown by putting barricades on its stage—a reminder of the haphazardly enforced gates in front of monuments on the National Mall. The Washington Examiner, a magazine that recently reduced its local reporting staff to focus on politics, told readers that an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing the GOP badly losing was skewed toward government workers. That made it “all but useless as support for strategic decisions by anybody involved in the shutdown debate,” but “perfectly consistent with the conventional wisdom of the traditional media.”
“I haven’t seen much public reaction except people criticizing the administration,” said Regis Campbell, a Maryland activist who’d bought two rakes to the clean-up rally. “Sure, the polls do say people blame Republicans, but I don’t know—I think when push comes to shove, people will realize where the blame really lies. All [Obama] has to do is come down with an executive order to stop the mandate, OK? Then we could give him a clean CR.”
“It’s fascinating,” said Pat Jakowski, a Maryland physical therapist who brought a garbage-picking wand to the Saturday rally. “If you really look at the demographics of the polls, you can see how easily they skew them. It’s another misleading source of information. The intelligent people who really pay attention to information can’t count on that.”
Beck’s speech tested the theory. The former Fox News host, who now runs a subscription-based online news channel, regaled the crowd with the story of anti-slavery Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner. “He was, I think, the Ted Cruz or Mike Lee or Rand Paul of his day,” said Beck. “The most hated Whig! He was the guy who was kind of really leading the Whig Party. There were only 20 of them, but they were tired of the lies. They knew the Whig Party was playing around with slavery, but it was time for slavery to end.”
Sumner, according to Beck, was hated because he proved how phony the rest of his party was when it pretended to oppose a law, and that his Whigs needed to be replaced by a new, honest party. “When Charles Sumner was on the floor of the Senate, a guy came from the House of Representatives came in with a big cane and beat him almost to death. Almost killed him! Nobody helped him—the only reason he survived was that he was able to drag himself underneath his desk. It took him two years to heal. They never prosecuted the guy with the cane, because he was popular. He was in a special, protected class!”
Beck got the caning right, but basically nothing else. By 1856, when Sumner was caned, the senator was already aligned with the new Republicans. Rep. Preston Brooks—the congressman who delivered the caning—was a Southern Democrat, not an angry Whig punishing Sumner for making the party look bad. He resigned after a failed vote to expel him from Congress, and he was fined $300—not the punishment he deserved, obviously, but a fluke of his support from the South, not a protection racket by the elites.
Details, details—Beck’s tailored history was much more inspiring than the truth. After he wrapped, the conservatives fanned out to clean the mall, dozens followed behind Beck to watch him work, share their stories, or join him in picking up a few cigarette butts and tossing them in garbage bags. After a few blocks, Beck reached one of the useless gates, warning passersby that the mall was closed. “He’s going to flagrantly defy the law!” laughed a cameraman.
Beck cartoonishly “sneaked” around the fence in the manner of Bugs Bunny coming up behind Elmer Fudd. His reward on the other side: A garbage can where one of the “DO NOT ENTER” signs had been junked. “That’s too good,” said Beck. “We’ve got to keep that for the museum.”
The clean-up went on for hours. If you stood anywhere on the mall between the Capitol and the World War II Memorial, you’d see a conservative activist, or two or three, hunting for garbage on wet grass. It wasn’t cynical for them. The media was cynical. The Republicans who trusted the media was cynical. When Beck wrapped up at the World War II Memorial (“humbling to meet our veterans”), he zoomed up Connecticut Avenue to the Values Voter Summit. “You're on the verge of winning,” he told conservatives and C-Span cameras. “It's going to happen quickly if you don't compromise your values—if you stay the course.”
After Beck left, I stuck around the summit for some conversation and a couple of closing breakout sessions. With the cameras off, the optimism about defunding Obamacare this year faded.
“John Boehner’s primary fear is the media,” said Terry Jeffrey, a conservative journalist who now edits the Media Research Center’s news arm. “He doesn't believe he can win with a conservative message in media.”
“The inside game has failed,” said Dean Clancy, vice president for policy at FreedomWorks. If Republicans couldn’t be trusted to fight, conservatives needed to get 34 states to launch a new constitutional convention and undo the damage of the Progressive era. “We ought to look at the other way of amending the Constitution, and that’s the Article V process. I think Mark Levin is right. I think George Mason and the founders put that in there for a reason. It’s an ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ provision.”
Jeffrey agreed with that. “We are going to have to engage in organized, peaceful disobedience,” he said. On Sunday, the conservative movement did just that. Lee returned to the mall alongside Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin, and hundreds of activists who swore to “storm” the World War II memorial and liberate it from the “Barrycades.” Activists picked up the hated gates and dumped them as close as they could get to the White House, a few blocks away.
“This belongs to you!” thundered Lee at the memorial. “This does not belong to the government—this belongs to the people!”
“Is this any way that a commander-in-chief would show his respect, his gratitude, for our military?” asked Palin.
In the conservative new media, and among House Republicans, the protest was a powerful success—a game-changer even. “The press will try to keep today’s events secret, but I doubt whether they can succeed,” wrote Powerline, the blog that became famous in 2004 for breaking and aggregating news about Dan Rather’s botched story on George W. Bush’s National Guard service. “Time will tell, but this seems like the sort of revelatory moment that will reverberate and gain force with time.” And if it doesn’t? Conservatives have a long, long list of the people they’re ready to blame.