Tea partiers get audience with RNC chairman but not a shared public stage

RNC Chairman Michael Steele, a high-tea sort of guy, met with tea party activists for four hours.
RNC Chairman Michael Steele, a high-tea sort of guy, met with tea party activists for four hours. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele treated tea party leaders like an ugly date Tuesday afternoon: They were good enough to take upstairs, but not good enough to be seen with in public.

Steele invited leaders of the conservative movement over to the GOP's Capitol Hill headquarters (to the adjacent National Republican Club, technically) for a private meeting on the third floor. But Republican leaders, probably wary of TV footage showing a tea party takeover of RNC headquarters, denied the activists' request to use the facility for the news conference they had planned for afterward.

"They wouldn't allow it," said Karin Hoffman, the grass-roots activist who organized the meeting.

The tea partiers were out in the cold -- 21 degrees with the wind chill, to be exact. They held their news conference, sans Steele, on the sidewalk across from the Capitol South Metro entrance.

"You guys are all frozen," Hoffman observed as she greeted the shivering camera crews and reporters after her session. The meeting itself, she said, was "healthy," if not conclusive. "It's the beginning of a relationship."

A long-distance one, if Steele's absence was any indication.

The moment encapsulated well the Republican Party's dilemma as it tries to harness the considerable energy of the tea party movement. Steele's task is essentially to co-opt its leaders, keeping them from electoral challenges that could hurt the GOP's chances. Yet at the same time, he can't appear to the rest of the country to be embracing a movement known for extremist words and deeds.

Not since Victorian times has an afternoon tea been fraught with as many etiquette considerations as Steele's session with the tea party activists.

First, there were the manners for anybody enjoying high tea to keep in mind. Would they remember to hold the cup handle with their fingers -- don't loop your fingers through the handle! -- and tilt the pinkie slightly up for balance? Would they remember to introduce the milk to the tea from south to north, not stirring it in a circular motion?

On top of all this, layered like jam atop a buttered scone, was another protocol concern: Would Steele be able to woo the tea party leaders without giving them an all-out endorsement?

The RNC solved the pinkie-raising problem by serving, in addition to the tea, soft drinks and cookies. The second set of problems won't be settled quite so easily.

Asked by reporters whether they were all leaving the meeting as loyal Republicans, the tea party activists answered with shouts of "No! No! . . . Loyal Americans! . . . Citizens! . . . Conservatives!"

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