'Tea party' movement: Who are they and what do they want?

Tea Party Nation convention starts Thursday. Questions and answers about the tea party movement and how it might affect the 2010 elections.

By , / Staff writer

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    Tax Day Tea Party: Tamara Schirrmacher dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, with chains representing the national debt, at a rally in Pleasanton, Calif., last April.
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Of all the protest signs at all the rallies and town-hall meetings where people gathered last year to object to Washington's plans to save the US economy and reform healthcare, this hand-lettered one is memorable: "You can't fix stupid, but you can vote it out."

That's the "tea party" movement in a nutshell.

The left paints the movement as a largely white and middle-class mob – and as including kooks who equate President Obama with Joseph Stalin.

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There's some truth to that view. But where some see a bunch of white people standing in the way of progress, others see a growing expression of dissatisfaction with what former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) calls the "neomonarchists."

Ahead of the Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville, Tenn., slated for Feb. 4-6, here's a look at the tea party movement – its birth, its leadership, and its aspirations.

When – and why – was the tea party movement born?

CNBC editor Rick Santelli's on-air "rant" last February about a proposed mortgage bailout is widely considered to be the "big bang" moment for the birth of the movement.

A few days later, a couple of conservative foot soldiers – John O'Hara of the Heartland Institute and J.P. Freire, then of The American Spectator – wondered if there were a way to harness Mr. Santelli's frustration.

"You know what would be funny?" Mr. Freire mused to Mr. O'Hara, leading into a discussion that would become so much more than talk.

The pair organized "A New American Tea Party" rally outside the White House on Feb. 27, according to O'Hara's book about the movement. Six weeks later (around tax day), about 500,000 people took to the streets in small, medium, and large protests from San Francisco to Atlanta. Today, says O'Hara in a phone interview, "there are absolutely hundreds" of local and state tea party organizations.

Is the tea party a real populist movement or a front for big business?

No single person leads the tea party movement. Sympathizers and role players include conservative politicians Sarah Palin and Dick Armey, antitax crusader Grover Norquist, online organizer Eric Odom of the American Liberty Alliance, and media personalities such as talk radio's Mark Williams and Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

But unheralded operatives, such as Brendan Steinhauser, campaign director for FreedomWorks and author of "The Conservative Revolution," created the backbone of the movement, establishing websites and Facebook pages that would become populated with fed-up voters.

Critics say it is being funded or co-opted by entrenched conservative powers like FreedomWorks, which recruits volunteers to lobby for smaller government and lower taxes. The Washington Post has reported that the tea party movement is, through FreedomWorks, tied to corporations like MetLife, Philip Morris, and "foundations controlled by the archconservative Scaife family."

"Nobody is saying that the passion is manufactured," says Chris Harris at MediaMatters, a media watchdog group on the left. "But partisan and pro-­business interests … [are] using people's real passion in a way that protesters aren't meaning."

Tea partyers, however, say the amateur-hour feel of their movement proves it's a true grass-roots uprising. "You can't simultaneously call the movement fractured and incompetent and a vast right-wing conspiracy," says O'Hara.

What do tea partyers want?

The movement, in its essence, is about safeguarding individual liberty, cutting taxes, and ending bailouts for business while the American taxpayer gets burdened with more public debt. It is fueled by concern that the United States under Mr. Obama is becoming a European-style social democracy where individual initiative is sapped by the needs of the collective.

"The issue is no longer tea tariffs and imperial rule, but bailouts and handouts, stimulus in the face of deficits, cap and trade [on carbon emissions], universal healthcare … dictated against the will and interest of the people, and at the peril of … the nation as a whole" leading to "an inevitable blow-back in a battle over America's constitutional principles," writes O'Hara in "A New American Tea Party," which hit bookstores this month.

Is the tea party affiliated with the Republican Party?

Certainly more Republicans than Democrats show up at tea party events. But the movement's aim is to fight profligate spending by both parties in Washington. (GOP chairman Michael Steele was notably refused a spot on the speaking roster at a Chicago tea party event last year.)

In some ways, the tea party movement poses less of a challenge to Democrats than to Republicans, who must weigh the potential gains and pitfalls of courting far-right tea partyers against those of courting middle America. To what extent the tea party movement is middle America is the big question – one that coming elections will help answer.

What has the tea party movement achieved so far?

It appears to be winning the image war, for one. Forty-one percent of American adults have a positive view of the tea party, compared with 35 percent for the Democrats and 28 percent for the GOP, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Tea partyers did transform the healthcare reform debate, some analysts say, after activists stormed town-hall meetings last summer.

Moreover, decisions by Democratic Sens. Christopher Dodd and Byron Dorgan not to run for reelection this year is an acknowledgment that they probably would have faced a tea-party-inspired populist backlash at the polls, say tea party watchers.

In Massachusetts, tea party organizers helped to funnel money and manpower to state Sen. Scott Brown's successful bid for the late Ted Kennedy's seat in the US Senate. The upset victory, wrote conservative columnist Mary Katharine Ham, shows that "Democrats fooled themselves into believing the town-hall/tea party caricature and ignored the feelings of real Americans."

What role do tea party activists envision playing in the 2010 elections?

For a template, look to an emerging showdown in Florida between Gov. Charlie Crist and former state House Speaker Marco Rubio over a US Senate seat. Tea partyers are backing Mr. Rubio and making a horse race out of a GOP primary that the popular Mr. Crist should have strolled through.

"The genie has been let out of the bottle," says Robert Watson, a political scientist at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla

How will the tea party convention advance or hurt the movement?

Recent convention developments have some tea party activists worried the event could tarnish the movement. The decision by two of the convention's key speakers, Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R) of Minn. and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tenn., to pull out is giving Americans a glimpse of the internecine fighting in the tea party movement.

Some are also raising questions about convention expenses and its upscale lobster dinner, saying they contradict the movement's thrifty image and bolster arguments that the convention is a GOP ruse to raise millions.

Those who oppose the convention also question the cult of personality around Sarah Palin, the convention's headline speaker, and say it's the people who should be speaking to politicians, not the other way around.

Still, for many the controversy only proves the tea partyers are a grass roots movement with no central authority, and it's creating a forum for just the kind of healthy debate necessary to shape a stronger and more influential movement.

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