WASHINGTON– The Tea Party activists huddled on the south lawn of the Capitol got the news of health care reform’s passage in the cruelest way. As their enthusiasm had flagged, a small group of pro-health care reform activists had nestled into space right next to the Capitol wall. Outnumbered ten to one, none of them looking a day under thirty, they learned via Twitter when the House crossed the 216 vote mark to pass the Senate version of health care reform.
Bouncing up and down, waving faded and crumpled signs, the pro-reform crowd mugged for TV cameras. That prompted a few Tea Party activists to lower a massive American flag between the pro-”Obamacare” forces and the lights and lenses. The liberals cried foul. Park police broke the tension. And the Tea Partiers looked back at the Capitol and chanted “Na na na, hey hey, goodbye.” Just because the bill had passed didn’t mean they couldn’t kill it.
“The most important thing to remember,” said Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots, throwing her hoarse voice into a megaphone, “is that the fight for freedom, it never ends! In the next days, you’re going to find out what you can do to stop it in the Senate. If it becomes law, we’re going to fight to repeal it in the next Congress!”
The roughly 250 activists, some of them wiping away tears, cheered for Martin, then belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner,” then recited the pledge of allegiance. Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) slipped through their ranks unnoticed, then politely took the megaphone for himself.
“The American people lost today,” said Hoekstra, “but we’ve got some opportunities. We’ll fight this in the courts. We’ll fight this at the ballot box. Hopefully, in January, we’ll have enough votes to begin the process of repealing this bill.” The crowd cheered as Hoekstra — who is leaving Congress to run for governor of Michigan — walked out and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) walked in.
“I just came down here,” said King, “so I could say to you, God bless you.”
“God bless you!” shouted one activist.
“We’re here whenever you need us!” said another activist, patting King on the back.
“You are the awesome American people,” said King. “If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks who were standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that! Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!” One by one, the people gathered outside the Capitol, who’d spent the day cheering and singing whenever Republicans appeared and egged them on, came to the realization that they’d been beaten in this round. They’d have to redouble their efforts.
As King spoke, FreedomWorks campaign director Brendan Steinhauser looked on, pondering over the last year of Tea Party activism — especially the last two months. On January 19, the Tea Parties helped elect Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to the seat of the late Ted Kennedy and — so they thought — put the stake in health care reform. “ObamaCare,” wrote The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes after the Brown victory, “is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection.” A popular sign at the evening’s rally, spotted again at the Saturday rally that Steinhauser helped organize, portrayed President Obama as a vampire climbing out of a coffin marked “health care.” Opponents of health care reform, pondered Steinhauser, did not quite see the health care bill recovering and passing as it did.
“The media’s going to promote it as a victory for Democrats,” he said. “But I think enough people are out there — maybe they weren’t following it as closely today — who are going to pay attention now. We’re looking at what’s going to happen in the states, we’re possibly looking at legal challenges.”
Tea Party activists and Republicans were in total agreement after the call of the vote — they would go all-in on legal and legislative attacks on health care reform. But the lateness with which they considered a post-Brown Democratic victory on health care, and the speed with which they moved to a hardcore responses, mirrored the decision-making process of Democrats just a few months ago.
“We were roommates in Massachusetts, working for Brown,” said Mark Falzone, a New Jersey activist, pointing to his friend, Virginia activist David Morchek. “When we left there, we thought all this crap was over.”
Democrats had been slow to see the threat posed by Brown, a talented politician facing a creaky establishment and weak candidate, with the issues on his side. And once Brown won, Democratic leaders picked up the suggestion their left-leaning allies had been making all year — to break the logjam created by the GOP’s abuse of Senate procedure and pass a bill through the up-or-down reconciliation process. Similarly, Republicans and Tea Partiers saw Brown’s election as a game-changing event that would scare Democrats away from a comprehensive health care bill. When it became clear that Democrats would push forward, the Tea Partiers mobilized quickly.
For much of Saturday and Sunday, they hoped that their response would keep Democrats from cobbling together the votes they needed. But around 4 p.m., when news got out that Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) would accept a compromise on abortion funding and swing his support to the bill, the mood outside the Capitol grew dark, and the activists who’d been talking all this time about Constitutional challenges, and the essential evil of President Obama, got vindication.
“We had a dream,” said Deborah Welch, who joined her husband Chris on an eight-hour drive to the rally from Dayton, Ohio. “All of the Democrats and all of the Republicans were on this teeter-totter, and they were falling off. Nancy Pelosi was hanging on to Barney Frank by his pants — his pants were coming down. And Obama was standing out in the grass, watching it. What that meant was that Obama doesn’t care what happens to Congress. He has an agenda. He wants to collapse America.”
Joe Chalmers, an unemployed activist who’d come to the rally in camouflage, said he wasn’t in the military — he “didn’t want to fight for oil.” But he won both criticism and nods of the head as he talked to protesters about the need for a real uprising against the Democrats. As a Democratic victory looked more and more likely, Tea Partiers got more ornery about the liberals who’d showed up to cheer for reform and take commemorative photos of what, to them, looked like the end of a year of agenda-slowing right-wing activism.
“Look at that idiot!” said Linda Cocsy, a New Yorker who’d spent the weekend in Washington for the protests, pointing at one of the young Democrats who’d infiltrated the protest, holding up a pro-reform sign provided by a pro-choice Catholic group. “This one, here with the stupid grin on his face! He looks likes he’s brainless. You look at these people and, they really look like jerks. You look at the other people, with the Don’t Tread on Me [flags], and they look like real people!” Cocsy stared off at another protester, waving a sign he’d picked up from a pro-immigration reform protest that had broken up around the time that Stupak announced his flip. “I just wanna kill them!” said Cocsy.
That rhetoric didn’t have too many takers. After passage, after King had finished talking, Rep. Michele Bachmann addressed the crowd and beseeched it to commit “no violence” as it fought for health care repeal. Instead, they needed to focus on the elections, and on holding Democrats accountable.
“Remember who caused this bill to pass!” said Bachmann. “Not only was it Nancy Pelosi, it was the so-called pro-life Democrats, who can no longer call themselves pro-life.”