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Tea (party) time

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; 8:43 AM

The race is on to define the tea party.

This is harder than it sounds.

The Democrats and the Republicans have conventions, platforms, candidates and officeholders with voting records. The tea party is not really a party, but a loosely organized movement with a revolutionary name.

After initially dismissing the tea types as an unimportant sideshow, the media are drinking deeply from that particular cup, especially with today being Tax Day and all. Suddenly, the tea adherents are being cast as crucial to the 2010 elections, and perhaps the future of American politics.

What is the tea party's goal? "Taking back our country" and handing it over to -- whom? Would its followers be happy with any conservative administration? Are they going to run many of their own candidates? Is that realistic in a system dominated by two parties and big money?

Tea party enthusiasts are driven by a palpable dissatisfaction with the political establishment, taxes and the size of government. They also lean heavily Republican and do not like Barack Obama. But beyond that, with no card-carrying members, because there are no cards to carry, it's difficult to generalize.

There is a danger, it seems to me, of judging the tea party based on its nuttiest figures. Every movement has fringes, people who show up at rallies with obscene signs and shout offensive things.

And that just got more complicated. Now comes word that lefties opposed to the tea party are trying to portray it as crazier than it is -- all the more reason for journalists to be careful.

"Meet Jason Levin, quite possibly the scariest man in the tea party universe," TPM reports.

"An Oregon technology consultant, Levin is the leader of Crash The Tea Party, a plan to take down the tea party from the inside. Levin says he's got a growing cadre of supporters across the country, and conservatives from the message boards to the set of the Sean Hannity's show are getting nervous. 'Our plan is not to shout them down,' Levin told me yesterday, 'but to infiltrate them and push them farther from the mainstream.' . . .

"Levin's group of protesters plan to get in the heads of tea partiers at the Tax Day Tea Parties nationwide Thursday and manipulate them right out of relevance. They'll dress like tea partiers, talk like tea partiers and carry signs like tea partiers. In fact, according to Levin they'll be completely indistinguishable from tea partiers, except for one thing -- they won't be out-crazied by anyone."

Sounds rather deceptive, doesn't it?

In related news, "New Hampshire Democrats are engaged in a statewide search for liberal activists willing to attend so-called tea parties on Thursday and carry signs expressing racist or fringe sentiments, a Democratic source with knowledge of the effort tells NowHampshire.com.

"According to the source, who sought anonymity for fear of reprisals, the Dems' last minute scramble reflects a growing obsession among party leaders that they need to discredit the tea party movement soon or it will overwhelm them come the November election."

Now that the plan isn't so secret, Michelle Malkin jumps all over it:

"The latest effort to smear tea partiers involves self-appointed agents provocateurs who are organizing a 'Crash the Tea Party' campaign to discredit the April 15 Tax Day Tea Party by making up bogus racist signs and providing false portrayals of grassroots activists to the press. An online punk, Jason Levin, is spearheading the infiltration effort to 'act on behalf of the Tea Party in ways which exaggerate their least appealing qualities' and 'damage the public's opinion of them.' Never mind that public-opinion polls now show that the majority of Americans stand with the core principles of fiscal responsibility espoused by tea-party activists.

"Levin may be a lone-wolf operator, but he has many fellow travelers in the Democratic establishment and left-wing fever swamps. And their efforts wouldn't be possible without friendlies in the press who have openly insulted tea-party activists with endless vulgar sexual taunts and Taliban comparisons."

Wait -- isn't she doing the same thing? Instead of tarring the tea-partiers with the actions of a fringe, Malkin ties liberal "fellow travelers" to the actions of a lone wolf.

Malkin adds that "I speak from direct experience about the underhandedness of tea-party smear merchants. On Feb. 17, 2009, at one of the country's first tax-revolt rallies in Denver, a man approached me amid a throng of bona fide anti-stimulus protesters and thrust a camera in my face. I obliged cheerfully, as I usually do after such speaking events. I later learned from the character assassins at Progress Now, a left-wing outfit that just happened to be there and just happened to snap a close-up photo of the interaction, that the man pulled out a sign at the last minute (which I didn't see until later) sporting Obama's name with a swastika on it. He held the sign away from me, but in direct view of the Progress Now cameraperson."

Even without staging and subterfuge, the movement has its share of extremists. So says Fox News:

"While organizers have held the tour as a way to stay front-and-center as a political force, the rallies have also attracted the kinds of mistruths, exaggerations and conspiracy theories that make Tea Party leaders cringe. Though the movement is still trying to shore up its credentials as a grassroots power that's here to stay, the so-called 'fringe' and its accompanying antics continue to give critics fodder.

" 'Obama, to me, is a socialist. He's a Muslim and all he wants to do is bankrupt us and run us into the ground,' Ken Schwalbach of Escanaba, Mich., said at a rally."

Soon there may be guns involved, the AP says:

"Frustrated by recent political setbacks, tea party leaders and some conservative members of the Oklahoma Legislature say they would like to create a new volunteer militia to help defend against what they believe are improper federal infringements on state sovereignty.

"Tea party movement leaders say they've discussed the idea with several supportive lawmakers and hope to get legislation next year to recognize a new volunteer force. They say the unit would not resemble militia groups that have been raided for allegedly plotting attacks on law enforcement officers.

" 'Is it scary? It sure is,' said tea party leader Al Gerhart of Oklahoma City, who heads an umbrella group of tea party factions called the Oklahoma Constitutional Alliance. 'But when do the states stop rolling over for the federal government?' "

Is he taking Sarah Palin's call to "reload" seriously?

Speaking of the ex-governor, she spoke at a big Boston tea rally and ripped the administration:

"I'm not calling anyone un-American, but the unintended consequences of these actions -- the results -- are un-American."

Ah, so Obama & Co. are inadvertently un-American.

Now for some polling data:

"Tea party supporters are wealthier and more well-educated than the general public, tend to be Republican, white, male, and married, and their strong opposition to the Obama administration is more rooted in political ideology than anxiety about their personal economic situation, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

"The 18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters look like Republicans in many ways, but they hold more conservative views on a range of issues and tend to be older than Republicans generally. They are also more likely than Republicans as a whole to describe themselves as 'very conservative' and President Obama as 'very liberal.' "

This is mildly surprising: "Most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as 'fair.' Most send their children to public schools, do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost."

And this isn't: "More than half say the policies of the administration favor the poor, and 25 percent, compared with 11 percent of the general public, think that the administration favors blacks over whites. . . . Nearly 9 in 10 disapprove of the job Mr. Obama is doing overall, and about the same percentage fault his handling on the specifics, too: health care, the economy, and the federal budget deficit. More than 8 in 10 hold an unfavorable view of him personally, and 92 percent believe he is moving the country toward socialism -- an opinion shared by about half the general public."

And this fun fact, from CBS:

"Sixty-three percent say they get the majority of their political and current events news on television from the Fox News Channel."

Michelle flies solo

Lynn Sweet blogs from Mexico on the first lady's visit, "a trip that will put on display Mrs. Obama's diplomatic chops. . . .

"While Mrs. Obama has almost 100 percent name recognition in the U.S. -- whether for fashion, her White House garden, or work combating childhood obesity -- her image is less defined here.

"In some sense, Mrs. Obama outside the U.S. is a blank canvas, except perhaps for her taste in clothes, waiting to be filled in. The Mexico and Haiti trips are only the first in a string of solo foreign travel planned in the months ahead, according to a White House adviser. Mexico and Haiti could serve as image-defining chapters in Mrs. Obama's story."

Supreme speculation

You might think the president's pick is mainly about ideology. Not so, says the Daily Beast's Richard Wolffe:

"Amid all the speculation about who President Obama will pick to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the pundits and partisans have already overhyped at least one factor, according to White House officials: the politics of the confirmation vote. . . .

"The White House is hinting that the ideological cast of its ultimate pick doesn't really matter. Obama's team is expecting a full onslaught from the right, no matter who he chooses. . . .

"Does that mean Obama is free to pick a more progressive nominee if he wants to? Not quite. Obama's aides say the president is looking for more personal qualities than ideological colors in his second pick for the Supreme Court. In that sense, Obama is looking for a nominee who has some of the persuasive powers of the retiring justice John Paul Stevens."

In the end it's all about getting to 5-4.

Reid revisited

Michael Kinsley looks back at the gaffe that created problems for the Senate majority leader, when he said Obama was "light-skinned" and "had no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one":

"Harry Reid will survive this scandal. If he is defeated for re-election in the fall, it won't be because the voters of Nevada objected to his observation about President Obama's skin tone. And maybe, if we're really lucky, this episode will mark the beginning of the end of the age of Umbrage, when the basic move in the chess game of politics has been to take offense at something the other guy said. The offense is phony--Republicans are delighted to have a stick to beat Harry Reid with, just as Democrats enjoyed the opportunity to wreck Trent Lott's career. And even if it weren't phony, the politics of umbrage trivializes civic discourse. We have more important things to talk about.

"The press has a lot to answer for here. Journalists often make a lot out of a little, but usually there is a kernel of a real-life development in there somewhere. Even stone soup needs a stone. The Harry Reid story is especially remarkable for being entirely the creation of journalism. Reid spoke the fateful words in an interview with two reporters who, if they found his remarks shocking, nevertheless had the discipline to keep them quiet for months until their book came out."

Reid was basically guilty of being tone-deaf -- "Negro?" -- but still felt the need to apologize.

Deja vu

Larry King is getting divorced -- for the eighth time. Very sad.

Today's Tiger

Not only did he lose the Masters, says "Entertainment Tonight," but Woods has more bad news coming:

"With Tiger Woods saying he will take time to 'reevaluate things' after coming in at a disappointing fourth place at the Masters -- with his wife Elin Nordegren nowhere in sight during the tournament -- our Kevin Frazier now breaks news about the embattled couple's marriage.

" 'For weeks now there have been rumors that Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren might reconcile and save their marriage,' Kevin says in the new blog. 'It was believed by going to sex rehab that Tiger had done just enough to keep his family together. But sources have told me that the marriage is indeed over.' "

Well, maybe. But didn't a bunch of blogs and magazines report last December that Elin was about to file for divorce?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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