Democrats in Washington have called them terrorists and extortionists, but tea party activists say the name-calling is only proof they are finally having a real impact on the debate over government spending.
“Our enrollments go up, and people start new chapters,” said Mark Meckler, co-founder of Tea Party Patriots, as the dust settles from the recent epic battle with President Obama and congressional Democrats over government spending and borrowing. “It’s definitely worked to our advantage.”
During the contentious fight over raising the nation’s borrowing limit, Republican lawmakers affiliated with the tea party were targeted for especial scorn as they held out for deeper spending cuts and no tax increases. Rep. Mike Doyle, Pennsylvania Democrat, complained to Vice President Joseph R. Biden in a closed meeting of House Democrats that the tea party-allied lawmakers “have made it impossible to spend any money.”
“We have negotiated with terrorists,” Mr. Doyle said.
Several sources in the room said Mr. Biden agreed with the characterization and repeated it, although the vice president later denied it.
“I did not use the ‘terrorism’ word,” Mr. Biden told CBS News afterward. “I never said that they were terrorists or weren’t terrorists. I just let them vent.”
Asked if President Obama thought the use of the “terrorist” label was appropriate, spokesman Jay Carney said, “No, he doesn´t, and neither does the vice president. Any kind of comments like that are simply not conducive to the kind of political discourse that we hope to have.”
But there have been numerous examples of Democrats using incendiary rhetoric targeting tea party figures in recent weeks. Some of the same liberals who denounced conservatives such as Sarah Palin for using violent imagery in the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Democrat, showed no hesitation to use similar language in the debt debate.
As lawmakers debated a measure to require a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, supported by tea party groups, Rep. Mel Watt, North Carolina Democrat, complained that the legislation “literally holds a gun to the head of the economy of the United States of America.”
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, spoke of “Russian roulette” with loaded chambers, and how House Republicans “want to shoot every bullet they have at the president.”
Former Obama administration economist Steven Rattner called the GOP’s bargaining tactics “a form of economic terrorism.”
“I imagine these tea party guys are like strapped with dynamite standing in the middle of Times Square at rush hour and saying, ‘Either you do it my way, or we are going to blow you up, ourselves up and the whole country up with us,’ ” Mr. Rattner said.
Mr. Meckler said he found the rhetoric “incredibly offensive” and he thinks it will backfire on Democrats.
“I’ve never seen politicians refer to such a large segment of the American population in pejorative terms,” he said. “It just shows how desperate these people are. They understand we are changing the status quo.”
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican and a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, said liberals are tossing around words like “terrorist” because they’ve lost the policy debate.
“It’s the last refuge of those who don’t have an argument left,” Mr. King said in an interview. “It tells me that the tea parties have been effective. We wouldn’t have had this debate if it weren’t for the tea parties.”
Following weeks of heated rhetoric against the tea party, a survey by the Pew Research Center found 37 percent of respondents said they had a worse impression of members of Congress affiliated with the tea party movement, while 11 percent said they viewed the group more favorably.
The poll also found that people affiliated with tea parties tended to be twice as engaged in the debate taking place in Washington. About 10 percent of people surveyed by Pew said they contacted an elected official about the federal budget deficit in the past month, but 20 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who agree with the tea party movement did so.
Mr. King, who voted against the debt deal, said the episode has left tea party groups with “a sense of informed disillusion with the system.” While they changed the discussion in Washington, he said, many are unhappy in the belief that the agreement won’t significantly cut spending.
As for the tea party’s influence going forward, Mr. King pointed to the Iowa presidential straw poll set for Aug. 13, in which he thinks conservative Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican and a staunch opponent of raising the debt ceiling, will surprise some observers.
“I think Ron Paul is underrated,” said Mr. King, whose district encompasses western Iowa. “He will show well. If the public doesn’t understand that, it might end up being a surprise to the national media.”