What I Learned at the Tea Parties

TeaParty.jpgBoth the media and many high profile politicos still seem to be flailing around trying to find some way to label, quantify and pigeonhole the myriad tea party groups which are springing up all around the country. Even Karl Rove, during a stop to promote his new book, expressed concerns over whether or not they might spur some sort of third party movement which could hurt the Republican party. After some time out in the trenches I regret to inform them all that the task of defining this movement may well be impossible.

Early on, I was also taken in by a lot of the media hype and found many of my preconceived notions being challenged. I’ve been spending my time this year working on a Congressional campaign which keeps me on the road quite a bit with my candidate, hitting all of the usual stops as well as some ventures into unknown territory. Many of these events are the same old song and dance. I don’t wish to put too cynical of a face on things, but there are plenty of groups out there where you know in advance which points you need to hit. The pro-life groups want to know you’ve checked the right box on your application. Gun owners and sportsmen clubs need to see that you’re up to date on the Heller decision. But when we started receiving invitations to address some tea party meetings I got nervous.

My immediate reaction was to insist that we didn’t send out any invitations to the press. I’d seen all of the provocative video clips from MSNBC and CNN, along with the blaring headlines at Huffington Post. My mind filled with images of pitchfork wielding townsmen carrying around signs with nooses, swastikas and allegations of secret communist plots. “Good Lord!” I thought. “This election is going to be hard enough. The last thing I need is a picture showing up in our local paper of my candidate hanging around with a bunch of Klansmen.

I’ve now met with more than a dozen groups in both Upstate New York and Pennsylvania, and my suspicions have been almost unanimously confounded rather than confirmed. We’ve been greeted by surprisingly large groups of citizens who were polite and obviously very well informed on the issues of the day which concern them. The tone has been far more energized and excited than hysterical. And any expectations of a friendly, conservative base reception were quickly dismissed. They asked questions – very tough questions in many cases – and listened patiently to the answers.

The topics of interest came as a bit of a shock also. As part of my duties I help with crafting the candidate’s stump speeches. Again, not wishing to sound overly jaded, but for the usual Republican gatherings I know what works. I always include the key buzz phrases: “respect for life” and “keep and bear arms” along with all the rest. They are the reliable barn burners which always bring the house down. Imagine my dismay when these tried and true stump winners were met with either silent nods of approval or polite smatterings of applause. It’s not that the audience didn’t agree… it’s just not what they came to hear.

Another part of the speech caught the crowd’s interest instead. The congressional hopeful spoke of his career as a high school history teacher. (For the record, after these speeches I generally have to scurry around and remind people that he teaches at a private Catholic school and isn’t affiliated with the teachers union.) He talked about stressing to his students the importance of Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution and the 10th amendment. That is what brought the crowd to their feet. We had to pause and wait for the ovation to die down. They knew their history and were focused on what they saw as the proper function and authority of the federal government. (And let’s have a moment of brutal honesty here… how many of you had to flip open another tab on your browser to be reminded of what Article 1 Section 8 says?)

These groups do not just hand out their endorsements lightly, either. They don’t toss up the banner of every candidate with an “R” after their name. Thus far they seem to be paying a lot more attention to the state Conservative Party than the GOP. A couple of them have endorsed Libertarians over Republicans.

The point is, meeting with tea party supporters has been a surprising experience. It’s not politics as usual and the old rules about Red vs. Blue and D vs. R don’t apply. Like any large gathering, you’ll find a couple of people with some more fringe outlooks, and that seems to be who the television cameras focus on. (We had one couple at a recent meeting who were obviously birthers and wanted to ask about Obama’s birth certificate, but they were quickly shushed by the rest of the crowd.) But for the most part, each group seems to carry its own distinct flavor and topics of interest. The one thing they seem to have in common is that they are unhappy with the current leadership in D.C. and they have come to play a serious game. If you think you already know the tea party movement, there’s a good chance you don’t. It’s kind of like trying to say you know the ocean. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s rarely the same twice, and you never know exactly what it’s going to do next.

UPDATE: Thanks for the reminder and my apologies for the omission. Disclosure Statement: The author is currently serving as Director of Communications for George Phillips, Republican candidate for Congress in New York’s 22nd District.