Last month’s nationwide “tea party” demonstrations to protest massive government spending increases and rising taxes received relatively little coverage from the national news media.
Liberal big-government groups dismissed them as the work of right-wing advocacy organizations in Washington, and the events were so dispersed - most of them in small cities and towns - that no one could be sure how many actually had turned out to attend them.
In fact, the events were organized locally by nonactivists who had never done anything like this before. More than 600,000 people in nearly 600 localities - from Bakersfield, Calif., to Atlanta - turned out to vent their anger over the Democrats’ massive spending levels. A rally-by-rally account of the people who attended the events suggests that turnout could have been much higher.
The seemingly spontaneous April 15 protests have since grown into a more muscular movement of patriotic Americans concerned that the huge and escalating cost of government under President Obama and his party threatens to plunge the country into paralyzing levels of debt and taxes that will rob them of their economic freedoms.
Now the organizers are setting their sights on mass demonstrations in Washington and elsewhere this summer and fall, when Congress will be battling over Mr. Obama’s biggest budget busters.
Organizers tell me that rallies are planned in Washington and around the nation on July Fourth to tie their movement’s goals to America’s founding principles. Rallies will be planned for Sept. 12, when Congress is expected to be in the midst of debate over the administration’s plans to pass a government-run health care system, cap-and-trade energy taxes and other big spending programs. Finally, rallies are planned for Oct. 2, when supporters expect spending battles to be at full throttle.
“There is no central government body behind this. It’s a genuine grass-roots movement, so I think you will continue to see an array of grass-roots protests giving voice to their concerns that they have of losing their freedom, specifically their economic freedom,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity and one of the movement’s many informal leaders.
There appears to be no unanimity among the disparate groups around the country about the various protest dates. “Some will say July 4, or Sept. 12, or Oct. 2, while others will have a series of events in their localities,” Mr. Phillips told me. Since April 15, the thousands of little-known, first-time protesters who organized and promoted the events appear to have faded back into obscurity. But leaders monitoring these groups say they have been busy organizing themselves through a spurt of new Web sites and local meetings, and many have gotten active in local politics.
“In some areas, we’ve noticed tea-party activists are getting involved in local government, on school boards [and] town councils, and a lot of national Web sites are popping up to organize for another massive tea-party push,” said Adam Bitely, director of new media at Americans for Limited Government.
The Web sites have names like TeaPartyPatriots.org and TaxDayTeaParty.com. Mr. Bitely’s NetrightNation.com monitors the Web sites and reports on the movement’s progress.
A month after the national tea-party protests stunned the conservative establishment by its size and spontaneity, veteran organizers here are still taking stock of its breadth and depth.
“I was surprised by the number of people willing to go out and demonstrate in public against spending too much without the spark of tax increases. It’s a much more sophisticated, philosophical electorate than I had believed existed,” said Grover Norquist, the veteran tax-cut crusader who runs Americans for Tax Reform.
“Nobody issues orders to this group, no one institution, no one person. This is the future of parallel organizing, person-to-person organizing - everything the Internet allows you to do,” Mr. Norquist told me.”This is a leave-me-alone coalition.”
Brendan Steinhauser, coordinator for the free-market advocacy group Freedom Works, told me he was “amazed by the energy created by all of this, and I think that is what you are going to see in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12. It should be a big event where we take that message about spending and taxes from the states to the nation’s capital. Congress will be back in session after its August recess, talking about budgets.”
Just how much fervor and energy this movement can produce remains to be seen, but it could be significant. Six hundred thousand people spread out across the nation doesn’t have the same political impact as thousands gathered in front of the Capitol demanding spending cuts.
We do know Mr. Obama responds to public pressure when he thinks it endangers his presidency. After the April 15 demonstrations, he asked his Cabinet collectively to identify $100 million in budget savings in a hastily arranged photo-op rightly ridiculed as a meaningless gesture.
If this movement ends up being as powerful as I think it can be, Mr. Obama and the Democrats will be up against something big.
Donald Lambro is the chief political correspondent of The Washington Times.