Crying and flapping of hands is to be expected from a 1-year-old. It’s only in a child’s second year that anyone expects them to start walking and talking.
So it is with the Tea Parties. On Thursday morning—the one-year anniversary of the first Tax Day Tea Party in 2009—protesters gathered at a “Liberty Summit” held by the group FreedomWorks. Part pep rally, part victory lap, the real purpose, it seemed, was to learn how to do more than just complain.
“You have the power,” State Delegate Bob Marshall, R-Va., told a packed auditorium at the Ronald Reagan Building, a federal office building in Washington. “You just have to get organized. … If you don’t organize, you’ve got enthusiasm, but the congressmen are just gonna roll over you.”
The event was basically Activism 101. The panels were organized by theme—”Dismantling ObamaCare,” “Economy in the Balance,” and so on—but the overall goal was to turn words into action, angry hordes into activists. Tea Partiers have proven that they can make noise, get media coverage, and drive liberals bonkers. What they haven’t shown is that they can win elections (unless you count this guy). Some Tea Party leaders have taken credit for the recent Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. But their influence is hard to measure. How many Tea Partiers are there? Do they have a core set of beliefs? What makes someone a Tea Partier vs. a regular old conservative? Does the label even matter?
We may not know until we see the exit polls in November. In the meantime, Tea Partiers have a lot to learn about ground-level political organizing. First up: lobbying. Every attendee got a tip sheet on how to lobby a member of Congress. On the sheet: Show up five minutes early. Prepare questions ahead of time. Always be polite. Dick Armey, former Republican majority leader and chairman of FreedomWorks, reiterated this last point in his remarks. “We are going to be assertive, we are going to be well-mannered, we are going to be good-humored,” he said. “But we’re going to be insistent, because our cause is too compelling and too just.” After the event, protesters fanned across the Hill to practice.
Then there were the nuts and bolts of political organizing. For inspiration, Tea Partiers turned to the 18th century. “Sam Adams was one of the first practitioners in America of what we call political technology,” said former Bush-Cheney field operator Chris Stio. He defined the term as “the ability to organize people who share your beliefs” and to “communicate your ideas to the public at large.” In the years before the revolution, Stio said, Adams created “committees of correspondence” in Massachusetts to spread his message to other parts of the country. Today’s equivalent: social networks. In that realm, though, Tea Partiers have a lot of catching up to do. “Obama’s people, they all open their eyes in the morning after they check their Twitter,” said Richard Delgaudio, a longtime activist from York, Pa. After a speaker politely called the audience “seasoned,” someone yelled out: “We’re old!”
It’s now gospel that conservatives have coopted the tactics of the radical left, particularly the writings of community organizer Saul Alinsky. But Tea Party leaders saw it as just the opposite. In the 1990s, said FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe, “we were studying the tactics of the left—how they got people to show up on the streets, how they used grassroots pressure to intimidate Congress to do their will.” As it turns out, he said, they used the Boston Tea Party as their model. “When did we give away our tradition?” Kibbe asked the crowd. “Don’t you think we should take it back from them?” Likewise, Daryn Iwicki of the Leadership Institute argued that the Obama campaign modeled its youth outreach on Ronald Reagan’s.
Speakers also emphasized that Tea Parties have to be about more than saying “no.” “I hear the word ‘stop’ a lot,” said one man during a Q and A. “Fundamentally, what—and I’d like for us to put our thinking caps on—what do we propose as a positive thing? We’re so busy playing defense. … I want to see us developing a positive agenda to go after those other people.” Kibbe had a phrase at the ready: “legislative entrepreneurs.” That is, “guys that are not only gonna stand on principle, but know what to do with that, know how to drive a positive vision.” Among those he cited: House candidate Allen West and senatorial candidate Marco Rubio, both Florida Republicans.
Ultimately, though, Tea Party influence will come down to good-old-fashioned get-out-the-vote efforts. As Stio put it: “You’re the person who calls people during dinner.” You’re the one who knocks on doors. You’re the one who follows up with a letter, making sure to mention the person’s dog in your note.”
Whether Tea Partiers will do that—and in enough numbers to make a difference—is anyone’s guess. “The big question is, are they going to ring the doorbells and fill out the voter sheets and write out the donation checks? Or are they going to complain?” said Delgaudio. “I admit I don’t know.”