Tea party has nation's attention. Now what?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

There may be no better illustration of the collective if disjointed strength of the tea party movement than Bucks County, Pa., a suburban sprawl outside Philadelphia.

There, in April 2009, two stay-at-home moms organized one of the first tea party groups in the country. They called themselves the Kitchen Table Patriots and began collecting e-mails and phone numbers of fellow conservatives.

Soon a scattering of other groups sprung up nearby, including the Lower Bucks County Tea Party Patriots, which hosted meetings where friends and neighbors could gather to share their frustration over the $814 billion federal stimulus package, bank and auto company bailouts, and other actions of the Obama administration.

Just a year and a half later, the Kitchen Table Patriots have discovered many new friends, some from far outside Pennsylvania. The group now operates out of a two-floor office, paid for by a national conservative group called the American Majority. Another big tea party funder, Washington-based FreedomWorks, is supplying yard signs and campaign literature.

To generate news coverage and excite local volunteers, yet another tea party organizing group, Americans for Prosperity, will make Bucks County a prominent stop on its "Spending Revolt" bus tour. And Tea Party Express, out of Sacramento, is considering a local stop on its fourth and final bus tour of the election cycle.

Still in its infancy, the tea party is often described as a coming together of like-minded Americans working in close coordination. In reality, it is more like a collision, a mash-up of disparate groups with differing priorities - some large, some small, most anger-fed and all with an ambition to overthrow the establishment to one degree or another. Some tea party groups are defiantly independent and take aim at Republicans as well as Democrats. Others seem more like offshoots of the Republican Party. The movement's competing missions overlap and some of its leaders - such as there are any - clash and distrust one another.

This tenuous assemblage of similar yet competing interests is one of the tea party's strengths. It has allowed the movement to rally millions of people by tapping into many strains of unhappiness.

Taken together, the many arms of the tea party movement have, in an impressively short time, grown into a potent and disruptive political force. It proved, in a series of stunning victories in Republican primaries across the nation, that it can mobilize volunteers, raise money (at least $60 million this year), end political careers and begin new ones. All without any formal structure or central leadership.

Now, with the next test of a general election approaching, the tea party has the nation's attention. The question is whether it is a momentary expression of discontent in an angry election year or the chaotic first efforts of a durable political movement.

Started with a rant

From its beginnings on the afternoon of Feb. 19, 2009, the tea party has been difficult for many Americans to understand. That day, CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, standing on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, unleashed a ferocious, hair-on-fire rant against President Obama's economic policies. He said he was going to hold a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest Obama's efforts to rescue defaulting homeowners.

As video of Santelli's sermon went viral on the Internet, Americans still in the thrall of the new administration dismissed him as an intolerant right-winger. But many others identified with his anger. They saw a government - and a president - who wanted to use their tax dollars to prop up the millionaire executives who sat atop bloated, badly run corporations and corrupt banks, and to bail out irresponsible citizens who had bought houses they couldn't afford.

Connected via Twitter, Facebook and plain-old e-mail, a vast network of conservative activists nationwide seized on the idea of a "tea party" and began planning them across the country.

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