At five-year mark, tea party celebrates but confronts questions about present and future


Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) speaks at an event in Washington marking the 5th anniversary of the start of the Tea Party. (Ben Terris/The Washington Post)
February 27

Maybe 8:30 in the morning isn’t the best time to start a birthday party. Perhaps that’s why so many of the chairs were empty Thursday in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Or maybe it’s just because five years after the birth of the tea party, some of the excitement has left the room.

Either way, when Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) — the 5-foot-2 tea party giant — took the stage, she didn’t seem to notice.

“There’s a temptation in our movement that when things don’t go our way, we can take our marbles and go home,” said Bachmann, who is not running for reelection this year. No, no, no! She didn’t decide to call it quits, she’s just going to “find a new perch” from which to lead the movement.

(“I was continually Nancy Pelosi’s top target,” she said after the speech, explaining her decision not to run again. “Fundraising took an inordinate amount of time.”)

Five years after Rick Santelli stood on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to yell about the stimulus bill and propose a “tea party in July,” and already doubters are raising questions about whether the movement will ever turn 10.

Rep. Steve King, the Iowa conservative, wasn’t buying the doomsday scenario, pointing out that the movement has had its highest levels of energy “when we had the biggest issues in front of us that we had a chance to change.” As for Thursday’s lackluster turnout: “I think it’s a good crowd in here, given that this isn’t like Obamacare is going to be voted down tomorrow.”

The all-day event, hosted by the Tea Party Patriots, featured dozens of speakers, including Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Mike Lee (Utah) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), and Reps. Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho) and Louie Gohmert (Tex.). They, along with various activists, radio personalities and state politicians, were preaching to a crowd of several hundred people, mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white and many from out of town. Topics included how to grow the conservative audience, eliminating the Education Department, and continuing the fight against the health-care law and the moral sin that is abortion.

One of the biggest applause lines of the day came when Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas started to ask, “Isn’t it high time we retired [House Speaker] John Boehner . . .” He tried to say more, but was drowned out by applause. The crowd stood and cheered for 25 seconds before he said, “Isn’t it high time we retired John Boehner’s biggest excuse [that] we only control one-half of one-third of the government?”

Cruz got a warm reception when he came out to the strains of “I Love Rock-n-Roll.” “I could have sworn I read in the New York Times that the tea party is dead,” he told the gathering. His speech was mostly about how the tea party is as strong as ever and that it is still going to repeal the health-care law.

A few attendees held signs with Bible passages, and one man wore a shirt that read “Obama, Liar, Radical, Marxist, Socialist, Tyrant, Subversive.”

It was not a message for everyone.

“We can disagree with the president without calling him names,” Paul said from the stage. “I disagree almost all the time, but I don’t call him names, and I am polite to him when I meet him.”

Lots of the partygoers were either trying to sell something or pitch a project.

“We need the government to get out of the business of building rockets,” said Gary Anderson, who wore a shirt that read “Tea Party in Space,” in “Star Trek” lettering. “Leave that to the private sector,” said his assistant, a woman who referred to her boss as “Mr. Anderson,” in homage to “The Matrix.”

“What do you think of the IRS?” asked a man wearing a shirt that said, “Unfair the Movie.” His name was Judd Saul (he said he was named Judd because it was the sound he made when his parents dropped him as a baby), and he is the director of the movie, a documentary about the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. He was standing outside the auditorium, next to another conference being held by the National Treasury Employees Union. He was trying to hand out literature to those workers, to no avail.

“If the IRS didn’t exist, a lot more people would be here,” he said. “I know a lot of people that are just scared to speak up. . . . They’ll get audited.”

Meanwhile, Norm Novitsky had his own movie to promote and he waited in a hallway to catch speakers when they finished.

“It’s called ‘In Search of Liberty,’ and it’s about the Constitution,” he told Bachmann as she walked by.

“Oh, good for you,” she said with a big smile. “I have to go.” And then she mingled for about 30 minutes. But that’s okay. Novitsky got to talk to Mark Levin, the conservative radio host who ended his speech by quoting from his own book.

“You were a big inspiration for me,” Novitsky said as the men posed for a picture.

Not everyone involved with the tea party is happy about how things are going. Just ask Dylan Stephenson, who volunteered on the Ron Paul presidential campaign (“The real tea party,” he called it) and who fled to the bar even though it was only a quarter till noon.

“I get so frustrated talking to these neocons that I need a . . . shot of Jameson,” he said, also noting that the tea party has become much more about social issues than he is comfortable with. “If the tea party wants to keep Democrats in power, they should just keep doing what they are doing.”

Ben Terris is a writer in the Washington Post's Style section with a focus on national politics.
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