Putting the 'tea' in GOP?

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 22, 2010; A02

Rep. Michele Bachmann is the leader of the Tea Party -- literally.

Wednesday morning, with the blessing of House GOP leaders, the Minnesota Republican convened the inaugural meeting of her Tea Party Caucus, where two dozen GOP members of Congress sat down with a similar number of Tea Party activists behind closed doors in an Armed Services Committee room. Then it was Bachmann's job to lead the group across the street to the Capitol for an appearance before TV cameras.

"Okay, we can just go down the stairs," she called out. "You're doing great, everybody. Okay, guys, this way!" She accepted a tube of lipstick from a male aide and applied it as she strode through the hallways of the Rayburn Building. "The press has been following us," she explained.

She continued her march down the Rayburn driveway ("Sorry about this long trip; I know it's warm") and across Independence Avenue ("Okay, let's cross when we can!") and finally mustered them a few steps from the TV cameras. "Ready to roll?" she asked.

There and then -- on the Capitol grounds 104 days before the midterm elections -- Tea Party activists and Republican officeholders set aside any pretense about the two groups being separate. They essentially consummated a merger: The activists allowed themselves to be co-opted by a political party, and the Republican leaders allowed themselves to become the faces of the movement.

Naturally, both protested that nothing of the sort was occurring. "I am not the head of the Tea Party," Bachmann announced as she stood in front of a phalanx of Tea Party leaders. "We are also not here to vouch for the Tea Party."

With a dozen House Republicans surrounding her, Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, announced that her group "wanted to make sure the people in Congress don't become a mouthpiece for the movement."

Sorry, ladies. When Tea Party leaders join Republican lawmakers for a private strategy session followed by a campaign rally in the shadow of the Capitol, each has essentially endorsed the other.

"We have to turn the tide around now in 2010 by electing conservative candidates such as Mrs. Bachmann here," activist Ana Puig proclaimed during her turn at the microphones.

"Let's lean into the fight, and let's take this country back in November," agreed Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.).

Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) forecast a Tea Party "tsunami that will sweep out these extremists who are governing the Congress in November."

A questioner asked Bachmann whether she was "putting your Republican colleagues in a spot" where they had to embrace the Tea Party. Bachmann said that three House Republican leaders have joined (the head of the House Republicans' 2010 campaign and the chairman of the House Republican Conference are members) and that "another member who is in the leadership told me he's very supportive of what we're doing and this is complementary" to other Republican efforts to seize the House in November. Bachmann added, incongruously, that she is still "hoping to be bipartisan" in her Tea Party Caucus.

Embracing the Tea Party brings some peril to the Republican Party, because it could create the perception that GOP leaders are endorsing the more extreme elements of the movement, such as the Nazi imagery and racist words. That may be why House Minority Leader John Boehner has kept his distance. Participants in Wednesday's rally were sensitive to the problem; after Bachmann's introduction, a black woman (with a baby), two Latinos and four more women spoke before the first white male was heard from.

"We are not racists," said Danielle Hollars, an African American mother of five.

"Racism is not an issue of the Tea Party, nor will it ever be," asserted Katrina Pierson, a member of the Dallas Tea Party who is of mixed race and has called for Texas to secede.

Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) then said that the presence of people from various "ethnic groups" should dispel "rumors about racism." But the very next speaker, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), revived the issue by disparaging Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and another black lawmaker, who were met with racial taunts as they walked to the Capitol during the health-care debate. "I got cussed," too, Gohmert said, but "I didn't come running to the media and whining and crying."

The race problem returned when Fox News's Carl Cameron asked about the "dissent and criticism" within the Tea Party movement. Mark Meckler, a leader of the Tea Party Patriots, used that as an opening to denounce Mark Williams of the Tea Party Express for writing a "racist, offensive and vile" essay mocking the NAACP. Meckler attributed such "vile racism" to a "fringe" movement.

But where does that fringe end?

At the rally Wednesday, Republican lawmakers listened as Puig accused the Democrats of "21st-century Marxism" and said that "what I see going on is exactly what has taken place throughout Latin America under dictators such as . . . Hugo Chávez in Venezuela." They listened as Tito Muñoz railed against the "socialist polices" of the Democrats. They listened as Keli Carender spoke of people "anonymously smearing" her and complained that "we're not supposed to fly places, but the presidential dog gets his own jet to fly somewhere."

They are the House Republicans, and they approved this message.

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