Strange Brew

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.

Conservatives hold up signs as they protest health care reform.
A health care protester’s macabre sign

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.”

“I have not talked to her today.”

“Would you mind checking with her scheduler and letting us know?”

“We do not know when she’s coming in.”

“OK, so we know that’s not true.”

“We do not know when she’s coming in.”

“We know that’s not true. We know that you know when she’s coming in. We understand that they keep a schedule and that you know the schedule.”

“There’s been no alert from the Senate today so we don’t know when she’s coming in.”

Then, after a pause, Meckler: “We’ll wait, then.”

Later that morning, Meckler and co. headed over to the office of Sen. Joe Lieberman, who has become as much a pariah on the right for supporting health care reform overall as he has on the left for opposing a public option. When they asked to speak with the man himself, a staffer said he wasn’t there, that the office had a “no loitering policy,” and that they would have to leave. If they did not, he would call the police. They did not. He called the police. A policeman arrived. He asked whether they understood they were being asked to leave. They said yes. They then asked whether he—the policeman—was asking them to leave. He said he was not. However, the policeman said, if a staffer had asked them to leave and they refused, they could be arrested. More police soon arrived. As they were conferring outside, Meckler got up and left. “We’d made our point,” he said. (Lieberman’s office confirms the account. See video here.)

Some Democratic Senate offices were more receptive. One group of tea partiers got a 15- minute meeting with Harry Reid’s Nevada press secretary Tuesday morning—an energetic but civil conversation about the potential consequences of health care reform. Staffers for Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania also met with the group. Tea partiers expecting to accost Democrats in the afternoon were out of luck, as Senate Dems had been summoned to the White House for a meeting with the president.

But the protesters had advice for Republicans, too. In meetings with staffers for Sens. DeMint, Jonny Isaacson, and Saxby Chambliss, the message was the same: delay, delay, delay. Liberals might accuse the GOP of stonewalling. But from the tea partiers’ perspective, the GOP hasn’t been doing nearly enough to stall the bill. “This could be three weeks behind where it is now,” says Meckler. The Senate has all kinds of procedural rules Republicans could be exploiting. For example, the quorum rule. The Senate technically requires that a quorum of 51 senators be present to conduct business. Minority parties typically consent to dispensing with the quorum call, just to speed things along. But if there’s only a handful of senators on the floor at any given moment, Republicans could start objecting. That’s just one of many possible stalling tactics. (See a good overview here.)

All of this said, there is still a contingent of tea partiers who are doing their part to ensure the movement is not taken seriously. Before the rally, a group of singers was belting out a health care themed rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” The last verse went:

“On the 10th day of Christmas, Obama gave to me:/ High unemployment,/ No end to earmarks,/ Mandating health care,/ Czars with power,/ Bankruptcy looming,/ No Transpaaaaareeeencyyyy,/ Fed printing dollars,/ Big bailouts,/ Welfare for all,/ And the loss of liberty.”

“This is gonna be on Glenn Beck!” the organizer, Steve Haimbaugh, promised. The usual silly posters were there, too, including one that labeled the Democratic plan “Gulag Care.” And FreedomWorks founder Dick Armey did little to diminish the movement’s reputation by referring to cable-TV host Rachel “Maddox.”

The movement must also contend with a lack of focus. Tea partiers are generally for small government, against taxes, and pro-“freedom.” But they have nothing resembling a platform, and their popular image has been more about opposing Obama than advocating realistic alternatives. (Abolishing the Fed does not count.) Indeed, their organizational structure practically forbids it. As Meckler explained, the grassroots group Tea Party Patriots has no real leaders. If its constituents want to endorse a candidate, they’ll endorse a candidate. If they want to form a PAC, they’ll form a PAC. But the notion that this can be done without creating a hierarchy has yet to be tested. Meckler told me to read this book and it will all make sense. I hope he’s right.

Correction, Dec. 16, 2009: This article mistakenly identified Eric Cantor as House minority leader. (Return to the corrected sentence.)