From punchline to powerhouse: the 'tea party' at one year

The 'tea party' movement still has much to prove. Populist movements often fizzle. But it has reinvigorated the Republican Party and constitutional ideals in an era of fading federalism.

By , Staff writer

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    Angie English and her husband Mike English, of Adairsville, Ga., attend a 'tea party' rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington Thursday.
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A year ago, few people paid attention to "tea party" activists like Ted Opper. Today, everybody wants a piece of him.

Pollsters, news organizations, and political scientists are studying Mr. Opper and his fellow tea partyers as a fascinating new, and possibly radical, political subspecies. Oppel simply sees himself as an ordinary American worried about mortgaging their kids' futures to pay for liberal largess.

"A lot of people want to see what they want to see in the tea party movement," says Opper, a military veteran who showed up to an Atlanta rally – one of scores of tea party tax day protests. "The problem for them is, it's not what they think it is."

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However political scientists measure its demographics and impact, one thing the tea party has done in one short year is undeniable: thoroughly shake America's political podium.

Movement has gained grudging respect

Once mostly the butt of late-night jokes, the movement has gained often grudging respect from media and even Democratic lawmakers as it has become a cultural counterweight to Washington's zag to the left under a Democratic president and Democratic Congress – all while giving Republicans, at least for the moment, a spring in their step.

"The tea party movement has achieved a prominence in the conversation in part because of the silence from the traditional elected Republican leadership, and now that leadership has been driven right by tea party rhetoric," says University of Wisconsin political scientist Charles Franklin. "That has moved the party in the tea party direction, but it can't help but also bring the tea party a little bit closer to the political mainstream."

Of course, tea party activists weren't transported in from "fly over country" – a.k.a. middle America – via a Star Trek transporter. In the 1992 election, many voted for Ross Perot. Some, like tea party activist Clark Jokl at the Atlanta event, were even disaffected Republicans who voted for Obama. Their earlier reincarnations include the Populist Party, the Know Nothings and the Sagebrush Rebels.

Such populist movements, which usually either fizzle or fold into established parties, are often fueled by "the kind of resentment that comes with powerlessness," says Fordham University political scientist Tom De Luca.

As they gathered across the country Thursday, many tea party activists say they're no longer feeling so powerless.

But their real power is still in question. Sure, activists played a role in the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R) in Massachusetts, but likely less of a role in the election of Govs. Bob McDonnell (R) in Virginia and and Chris Christie (R) in New Jersey. They've pushed Republican Marco Rubio to a front-runner role in Florida against incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist, but tea party candidates in several early Texas primaries did not fare well against mainstream Republicans.

Tea partyers generally well-off

Meanwhile, a bevy of new polls paint tea partyers as class-conscious, and overall wealthier and better educated than the average American.

"Looking at polling data on the early folks involved in tea party movement, you saw clusters of people with relatively less past political participation, with very strong anti-tax, anti-government views, but also very strong pro-gun rights positions," says Professor Franklin.

For many Democrats, the tea party represents a time machine trip "back to the bad old days," as Peter Gelzinis of the Boston Herald recently put it.

"The latest CBS News/New York Times poll presents a picture of an aging cohort of pessimistic white folks, rattled by economic and cultural changes which have rocked their increasingly Twitter-fied, multicultural and multi-polar world (one led by a charismatic black guy who can swoosh 3 pointers with the best of them)," writes Charles Cooper at CBS News. "And their unhappiness with the verdict of the 2008 presidential election has led them down the rabbit hole."

New political energy

Yet for all the tea party's faults, occasionally misspelled and outrageous signs, costume dress, and passionate protest, it nevertheless presents a rare sign of life in a moribund Washington beset with a gloomy economy, miserable jobs numbers, and the partisan approval of health-care reform – the largest new entitlement since Medicaid.

“The most sobering data that we have in here is how much significantly more energized the Republicans are – and the independents, frankly – than the Democrats,” Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners said at Thursday's Monitor Breakfast.

Atlanta protester Susan Youngblood of Auburn, Ala., says she senses a newfound curiosity from mainstream politicians and journalists as they push and prod on the tea party, trying to figure out what makes it tick – and what role it might have in the November elections.

"I don't care whether they respect us or not," says Ms. Youngblood. "Now, they know we have the votes to make a difference."

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