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The Tea Party, united only by anger and the Internet

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Tea Party has no leader. It has no address, no phone and no Washington headquarters. It is everywhere and nowhere. For Barack Obama, the Tea Party is the quintessential asymmetrical enemy, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan. The president stands a chance of losing on both fronts.

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The Post set up a posse and went in search of the Tea Party. Of the 2,300 local groups claimed by one Tea Party organization, The Post could verify or reach only 647. As for the rest, "it is unclear whether they are just hard to reach or don't exist," The Post said. Most of the known groups back no candidate, have no platform, raise little money and are not exactly sure of what they stand for. This is pretty close to what Will Rogers said of his own political allegiance: "I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat."

The difference between being an early-20th-century Democrat and an early-21st-century Tea Party member is the Internet. With it, the middleman is eliminated -- in this case an actual political party, Republican or Democratic, which was once called the organization because it actually organized. Now that's done laptop to laptop so like-minded people can get together, even if they do not actually get together. The Tea Party exists in the vapors. For Obama, it's a refutation of what Joe Louis said before his 1941 bout with Billy Conn: "He can run, but he can't hide." The Tea Party can do both.

As a result, the vexed Obama has been swinging wildly, punching at ghosts. He has tried elevating the colorless John Boehner as a worthy opponent, but his face is as unrecognizable as his name is unpronounceable. Obama tried to make the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Public Enemy No. 1, but to most Americans the chamber is a group of guys in short-sleeve shirts and clip-on ties who sponsor the July 4 parade. He has tried going after Big Business and Evil Finance, but they are where the jobs are -- or used to be -- and while they are both more or less disliked, the message is mixed.

Obama is stuck in the classic dilemma of asymmetrical warfare: Who and where is the enemy? In Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus carrots-and-sticks the Taliban -- battling them while also inviting them to peace talks. The strategy might work and, if it does, Obama might wonder why he did not do something similar. "Why should he be negotiating with the Taliban and not with the Tea Party?" the Democratic political consultant Douglas E. Schoen asked me.

The Post's survey of the Tea Party movement suggests Schoen is on to something. Despite a repellent stream of racism in the Tea Party ranks -- The Post found that 11 percent of the Tea Party members said that Obama's race, religion or ethnic background was either "very important" or "somewhat important" for the movement -- the overriding emotion is anger. Anger is ugly to behold, but it is both understandable and widespread. Who besides the odd walrus was not angered by the bridge to nowhere? Who is not angry about earmarks and exorbitant government pensions and lousy roads and awful schools and taxes that seem too high -- in other words a political system in dire need of reform?

The desire for change -- an emotion one step short of anger -- was what propelled Obama into the White House. As the Tea Party gained attention, he could have made common cause with it -- not on social issues, of course, but these are not as important as economic ones.

Those and a general distrust of government are what motivate most Tea Party members, The Post discovered. Their allegiance to any political party is minimal. Obama, with almost no political record, might have made inroads with these people. Instead, he managed to become the personification of Big Government -- not just with his programs (necessary though they might be) but with his persona and isolation in the White House. He banned lobbyists but managed to transform himself into the biggest one of all. He blew it.

The Tea Party is here to stay if only because the Internet is here to stay. But its emotions and its grievances can be co-opted, engulfed, absorbed and made part of the engine of change that Obama himself once both personified and promised. As I recall, the original Tea Party was open to anyone. All you needed for admittance was anger.

cohenr@washpost.com


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