Tea party movement loses steam

<em>April 15 Tea Party in Washington, DC (Aaron Wiener)</em>

April 15 Tea Party in Washington, DC (Aaron Wiener)

While South Carolina’s political establishment wrestles with the fate of Gov. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), Ron Parks has already moved on. He’s one of the organizers of a July 4 Tea Party in Charleston, a rally that will celebrate America and protest the way that President Barack Obama is governing it.

“We had 6,000 people show up at the last Tea Party in Charleston, on April 15, when [Gov.] Sanford spoke,” said Parks, a contractor who lost his job earlier this year and quickly found work as a volunteer with the Tea Party movement. “We’re expecting fewer people this time, but I’d love to have to eat my words.”

With no great fanfare and little national media coverage, the people who organized the April 15 Tea Parties are gearing up for a new day of protests against government spending and higher taxes. Hundreds of rallies will take place, at least one in every state, in public places and in parks rented out for the occasions. Many of the same people are involved. Most of the conservative organizations that aided the last rounds of rallies are on board for the sequel, such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. A proliferation of sites run by those groups and sites run by grassroots activists are pointing curious activists to rallies ranging in size from barbeques to a rally in Dallas that organizer Phillip Dennis promises will be “the biggest Tea Party in the history of Tea Parties.”

In the run-up to the first round of Tea Parties, conservative activists were aided enormously by coverage from Fox News and the endorsements of many Republican stars. Fox News ran dozens of segments about the events, dispatching five of its stars — Sean Hannity, Greta Van Susteren, John Gibson, Glenn Beck, and Neil Cavuto — across the country to cover them live. Newt Gingrich endorsed the events, speaking at a Tea Party in Times Square and dispatching talking points to protesters through his American Solutions organization. Dozens of Republican members of Congress spoke at the events. Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele passed up an opportunity to attend a Chicago Tea Party after being denied a speaking slot, but in May he told RNC members that the tide was turning against the Obama administration because “change is being delivered in a tea bag.”

But the collaboration between the official Republican establishment and the Tea Parties has not lasted into June. The RNC has no plans to get involved with any Tea Parties. A spokesman for Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who jaunted around northern California to attend several Tea Parties, said that his holiday plans were private but would probably not include Tea Parties. Gingrich will not attend any of the Tea Parties, although he recorded video messages for events in Birmingham and Nashville “at the request of the respective organizers,” according to spokesman Dan Kotman.

Media coverage has also gotten a little bit more scarce. Coverage on Fox News has largely been limited to interviews with Tea Party organizers on the network’s morning shows. While sources at Fox would not discuss their plans for covering the weekend events, they confirmed that no anchors would be attending and that the attendance and news value of the events looked to be lower than that of the April rallies. Tea Party organizers are counting, instead, on local news coverage and on distributed reporting such as the conservative news site PajamasTV, which hosts an “American Tea Party” show and has asked readers to submit their own videos from their rallies.

“There are legitimate journalistic reasons for why there’s less coverage this time around,” said Seton Motley, a spokesman for the conservative Media Research Center — a group that blasted CNN and MSNBC personalities for joking about the April 15 Tea Parties. “There aren’t as many rallies this time, and there was a novelty last time that isn’t there now. Also, if you’re talking about the networks that made light of the Tea Parties back in April, they might have realized that opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s indifference.”

According to Jenny Beth Martin, a national organizer of Tea Party Patriots, there are advantages to media hype and to media indifference. In April, when Martin helped organize the Atlanta Tea Party, Sean Hannity asked for, and got, a starring role in the event — a decision that brought national coverage and 20,000 people. “But I couldn’t meet many of those people,” said Martin. “This past Saturday, we had an impromptu rally to protest the cap and trade vote. On the fly, organized with Twitter and Facebook. Only 70 people showed up but I got to speak to everyone and get to know them.” Martin did credit the media attention of April with letting the Tea Party organizers “reach an audience we simply wouldn’t have been able to reach on our own.”

The result of all of this: lower expected attendance, with some of the difference made up by a more celebratory atmosphere. On April 15, the largest Tea Party in Texas was the Fort Worth rally featuring Gov. Rick Perry, who drew days of controversy for apparently endorsing the idea of Texas seceding from the union. The July 4 Dallas Tea Party, by contrast, will combine political speeches from columnist Michelle Malkin, Bosnia war hero Scott O’Grady, and local conservative activists with entertainment from ersatz Monkees drummer and singer Mickey Dolenz, a bluegrass Beatles cover band, and a program that lets kids edit themselves into rock videos (”Be a star — no talent required!”).

“We’re using the fireworks and the Monkees and the rest of that to attract people who never though they’d be at a Tea Party,” explained Phillip Dennis. “This is going to be much more of a celebration than a protest. It’s a celebration of the Declaration of Independence, and it’s going to be our own declaration of independence from an irresponsible government.”

Dennis and the Dallas organizers are hoping for a turnout of 50,000 people, and hoping for it despite a ban on politicians speaking from the stage. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) had asked to come and to sign copies of his new book, but reeled from the restriction; retired Lt. Col. Oliver North pulled out of the event for the same reason. (DeMint will appear at the event in Charleston, the only Republican senator making such an appearance this weekend.) Without Republican politicians getting involved, Tea Party organizers can speak openly about their plans to replace them. Asked what, if any, the political impact of the April 15 events was, Dennis suggested that it was “getting Sen. Arlen Specter out of the closet as a Democrat.”

“I think of the Tea Party Movement as a play in three acts,” said Michael Patrick Leahy, a Nashville activist who has clashed with other Tea Party organizers, but who is speaking at the Dallas event. “Act one was to protest the socialist statism that we don’t believe in. The second act is happening on Saturday when we celebrate the Constitution that we do believe in. The third act will be taking actions to restore limited government.”

Leahy pointed to the more independent, more attention-getting activists as the most likely way that the Tea Parties will evolve. One example: Phil Valentine, a radio host who has launched GivetheSenateSomeBalls.com, a campaign to supplant the tea bags that activists had been sending to Congress with brightly decorated sports balls, using some scatological humor to encourage the upper house to block Democratic plans.

“The idea for the balls campaign came to me as I was sitting around waiting to go on at a Tea Party event this past Monday,” said Valentine. “People are just beginning to send their balls to their senators.”

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David Weigel

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