The Tea Party is still taking shape

Six hundred tea party leaders arrived Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, for the first-ever three-day National Tea Party Convention. Organizers announced the creation of a political action committee called Ensuring Liberty Corp.
By Ann Gerhart and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 6, 2010

NASHVILLE -- The 600 delegates at the National Tea Party Convention feel taxed to death, ignored by their elected representatives and the media, and appalled at the federal government's spending -- and there are millions of Americans just like them. Their anger has helped claim some political scalps, and they vow to "take back America." What is unclear to them, and to the political establishment watching warily, is how they might do this.

It's a critical moment for a movement that is unmistakably people-powered, that has been deliberately left leaderless to give voice to all frustrations. And although the mood here has been festive, even giddy, the fluidity of the group has been on full display.

Here was a California woman counseling people on how to register new Republican voters in their communities, but there were others who criticize the Republican Party as fiercely as they do the Democratic Party. Here attendees lashed out against the practices of the Washington establishment, but there a man from Memphis announced the formation of a political action committee. Here a former congressman delivered a fiery defense of America's "Judeo-Christian values," but there delegates walked out of a prayer session they thought crossed a line.

The convention, which concludes Saturday night with a keynote address by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), in some respects has had the feel of a big blind date. The delegates chatted each other up for a year online, checking out each other's ideas and grievances, and they thought they might have something in common. Now they are spending a couple of days together, at a very nice resort, nibbling hibachi beef and browsing elegant "tea bag" jewelry, to see whether they like each other enough to be together.

Jeff Link, a luxury jewelry maker from New York, says that President George W. Bush started the fiscal policies that ruined the economy and that President Obama is making them worse, a belief shared by many here. But, he says, looking at the crowd, which is overwhelmingly white and middle-aged, "it saddens me not to see this gathering more diverse."

Jim Linn, an electrical engineer from San Diego, says that strict term limits must be imposed to "get control of Congress" and that the Constitution must be interpreted in ways that match his understanding of the Founders' intent. That would mean scrapping a lot of the amendments, he acknowledges, but not Nos. 2, 10, 16 and 17. He worries that a deeper depression is coming, and he tells his friends to store food, even though he knows it makes him sound like a crackpot.

Annie and Tom Runn, who have done missionary work in Haiti and Cuba, spent last week at the Republican National Committee gathering in Hawaii, where they live, and then came here. They can't support Obama because he's for "abortion and homosexuals," Tom Runn said. "We would support and vote for Sarah [Palin] over and over and over."

Lori Christenson, who started the Evergreen-Conifer Tea Party in Colorado in her house using the social networking site, wants politicians to act like their power comes from the people, not from their celebrity. Her group refuses to get involved with conservative social issues, which she calls "very, very divisive."

"I am coming to realize at this convention," she said Friday, over the thundering of a speaker from Judicial Watch, "that we are very, very different in terms of our beliefs. So now what?"

In Washington, where Democrats seemed oblivious to voter anger in Massachusetts and lost their supermajority in the Senate, White House officials are keeping a close watch on the developments here.

"The tea party movement has grown out of a sense of frustration about government here in Washington," senior adviser David Axelrod said Friday in an interview that will air Sunday on C-SPAN. "It's not isolated to Democrats or Republicans. . . . There is a sense that this town is consumed by politics, that people are consumed by their own ambitions and that we're not dealing with the real problems."

So far, the only formal political machinery to emerge from the convention is a planned political action committee announced Friday by Mark Skoda, a leader of the Memphis Tea Party, in front of a worldwide press corps of nearly a hundred. Skoda said the PAC would help elect up to 20 political candidates who advocate fiscal responsibility, less government, lower taxes, states' rights and strong national security. But it was not clear that Skoda's Ensuring Liberty Corp. would gain the support of the hundreds of tea party groups across the country.

"Let us not be naive here," Skoda said. "Holding up signs and simply responding with emotion does not get people elected. . . . While this is not the only way that the tea party movement can progress and mature, this is one way that we believe it can seek together the approach to counter the fragmentation that exists today."

Skoda, who grew up in a family of Democratic politicians near Cleveland, said in an interview that he has spent much of his working life as an executive with UPS and FedEx, opening up markets in Asia and Europe, an experience he said deepened his appreciation of the conservative values of liberty and economic freedom.

The PAC, he said, is not an attempt "to replace the Republican National Committee," but rather "a way by which people who have worked so hard thus far in the rallies, whose voices have not been heard, will be able to participate with their talents and their treasures -- and ultimately assure that the people are elected."

One emerging set of principles that could align tea party groups is taking shape on the Tea Party Patriots' Web site, where registered members can contribute to something that might resemble a platform.

"Note it is called the Contract From America, not the Contract With America," said William Temple, who runs a tea party group in Brunswick, Ga. "We are the ones giving the direction."

A cheerful man with a broad set of interests -- he is a pastor of "an all-black Maranatha" church, a painter, a retired Secret Service and Homeland Security employee, and a historical reenactor -- he made these pronouncements using an accent he hoped would sound early American, and he was dressed in period costume as Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Although some here praised Obama for his energy and for making history, many delegates said concern over his policies has pushed them into political activism for the first time in their lives.

On Thursday night, giving the opening address, former U.S. representative Tom Tancredo (Colo.), who ran for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination as an anti-immigration candidate, railed against Obama and "the cult of multiculturalism." Americans could be "boiled to death in a cauldron of the nanny state," he said. "People who couldn't even spell the word 'vote,' or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House."

When Tancredo said, "His name is Barack Hussein Obama," the audience booed loudly.

"The race for America is on," Tancredo said. "The president and his left-wing allies in Congress are going to look at every opportunity to destroy the Constitution before we have a chance to save it. So put your running shoes on."

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut in Washington contributed to this report.

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