The tea party protests and parades were much more modest this Tax Day, reflecting the grass-roots movement's metamorphosis from the mass fist-waving demonstrations of the past two years to something much more precise and targeted — a political "smart" bomb that, for now, shows no signs of becoming a third-party movement.
Tea party activists, many now in office in Washington and state capitals around the country, are quietly targeting politicians and policies responsible for what they say have been decades of fiscal profligacy that threaten American living standards.
"The lack of demonstrations shows the battlefield has moved to the halls of Congress, where the fight is over what to cut, and the focus is purely on lobbying Republicans to keep charging," said Nathan Mintz, Los Angeles County Republican secretary and South Bay Tea Party founder. "The battleground also has moved to the halls of state legislatures. In Wisconsin, the target is the public employees union, as opposed to unfocused outrage."
Many of those fist-wavers from the demonstrations on the National Mall and in town squares across the country were new to politics.
But they have "gone native" in a sense, mixing it up with politicians in the legislative hallways instead of brandishing placards outside. Eavesdropping and hobnobbing with power brokers, they pass insider info like ammunition over the wall to the tea party troops outside.
"We, like many other tea parties in Texas, are concentrating right now on the state Legislature," said Tea Party Patriots Organizer Barbara Bruechner of Mount Pleasant, Texas. "Texas has tea party representatives in Austin monitoring the numerous bills as they move through our state House and Senate and then sharing that info with tea party/grass-roots leadership across the state. That information is then shared with members of individual groups, and alerts are sent out when our elected officials need a little pressure to do the will of the people."
The tea party, with its not-so-secret agenda to take over the GOP and oust the party's so-called "RINOs" ("Republicans in name only"), is changing from a ragtag, rogue regiment of disgruntled Republican foot soldiers to a well-oiled and well-informed fifth column, determined to burrow in and become one of the two major parties.
Here's how Alaska tea patty activist David Eastman explains it: "The movement is busy organizing and entrenching, very much like a new third-party would, and this explains at least partly why there is less of a focus on rallies," he said.
The diminishing clatter of the tea party's cups is also the result of less trembling as the prospect of an all-Obama, all-the-time atmosphere appears a bit less threatening. "There are fewer tea party protests with less intensity because, with the GOP controlling the House, the fear about the worst elements of the Democrats' agenda has subsided," said Alexandria-based campaign consultant Michael Meyers.
"Tea party rally attendance is waning a bit because people are lowering protest signs and getting into the political process," said Waco, Texas, tea party activist Toby Marie Walker. "We can impact legislators when we write, call, phone and meet with them in person rather than out at the National Mall."
"While we have far more volunteers now than we ever have had, they are working on more local and state issues. The federal issues are not going to be solved until we clean up our own backyards," Mrs. Walker added.
"For many of us, we've gone to so many rallies over three years that our sentiment toward large-scale gatherings is, 'Been there, done that,'" said Dallas tea party leader Lorie Medina. "The movement has evolved so that all the individuals that stood on the street corner with a sign are now fighting to restore America in much more substantive ways."
In her hometown, she said, the tea party is working on a municipal ballot proposition to revoke bonds on a taxpayer-funded arts hall. A few miles north, tea partyers are fighting with the state transportation department on eminent-domain issues. And all the tea parties in her county are working with local and state elected officials on redistricting, she said.
"This is real change," she said. "Liberals, beware."
Tea party activists — ordinary people who poured out of the woodwork on Sept. 12, 2009, not to protest taxation without representation but to speak out against spending without restraint — say they've learned that revolution is real work.
"What we are seeing is a maturation of our movement. When it has come to generating pressure on legislators to cut government or vote, the activists are fully engaged," said media strategist Soren Dayton, who worked on the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain. "A year or two ago, it was about getting the public aware of the issues. Now it is about making sure that the politicians that they helped elect make the right choices in office."
Even if the tea party and its allies turn out to be less than what met the eye a year or so ago, the underlying force, like a subterranean river, is there.
"As in everything in the media about politics, the strength of the tea party was exaggerated in its rise. So later it looks like a fall — but it is only a more realistic assessment," said Donald J. Devine, editor of Conservative Battleline. "The individual groups inevitably lose their initial enthusiasm, but the mass movement below it survives."
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Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.
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