The Tea Party Splatters
As the grassroots movement prepares for its first big bash of 2010, internal dissent, finger-pointing, and paranoia could stunt its growth.
The first Tea Party Convention will be closed to the media except for a small number of "selected" journalists. Samuel P. Jacobs on the finger-pointing and paranoia that rules the big bash.
How do you take a spontaneously erupting grassroots phenomenon fueled by rebel anti-government rage, and mold it into a coherent political movement?
Not very easily, it turns out. That much is becoming clear, as 600 members of disparate groups from across the country prepare to descend on Nashville from February 4 through 6 for the first National Tea Party Convention. The group’s big coming-out party is threatened by a rash of infighting, finger-pointing and paranoia.
“We would strongly oppose any person or organization becoming the movement,” says Adam Brandon, press secretary for FreedomWorks.
The stars of the movement, such as they are, will be out: Going Rogue author, former GOP vice-presidential nominee, and newly minted Fox News contributor Sarah Palin; Minnesota GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann; and prominent birther Joseph Farah, the editor of WorldNetDaily, among them. But a number of Tea Party activists recoil at the very idea that their movement should have stars—and are steering clear because they don’t want to follow any one leader. And FreedomWorks, the nonprofit headed by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey—and the group that helped foster the early growth and development of the Tea Party insurgency—has decided to stay away.
“We would strongly oppose any person or organization becoming the movement,” says Adam Brandon, press secretary for FreedomWorks, in explaining his group’s absence. “At that point, it crashes into the mountain.”
• Tunku Varadarajan: In Defense of Tea Parties Brandon was complimentary of the organizers of the event: Tea Party Nation, a group founded by Tennessee defense lawyer Judson Phillips, who says he aims to make a profit on the event and turn money over to conservative causes. “Let a million flowers bloom,” Brandon says. But he says FreedomWorks favors a “different model” of activism. At the group’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, a book called The Starfish and The Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations is required reading.
“If you look at the March on Washington,” Brandon says, referring the event that FreedomWorks organized last September which brought tens of thousands of anti-government-spending protesters to the Capitol, “there was a reason why we didn’t bring big names.” Instead of heading to Nashville, FreedomWorks will bring a few dozen activists to Washington later in February to compare notes on best protest practices.
Armey’s crew is not the only one grumbling about the coming bash. The Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group which organizes nationwide and helped FreedomWorks rally turnout for the September protest, are irritated about another organization planning to attend: The Tea Party Express, a group with deep ties to a Republican consulting firm. The Patriots complained to Talking Points Memo that the Express crowd is compromised by their Republican relationships—and therefore anathema to the grassroots. But they should beware the holier-than-thou act: The Patriots work closely with FreedomWorks, which is backed by the likes of Exxon Mobil and billionaire conservatives Richard Scaife and Steve Forbes. Each group seems determined to lay claim to the true Tea Party mantle—and in the process, elbow out people who ought to be allies.
“Tea Party groups are a grassroots bit of Americana. It’s not big foundation-sponsored stuff,” says Daniel Stein, the president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which is sponsoring the convention (and is itself sponsored by a variety of conservative foundations).
Born on April 15, 2009—Tax Day—the Tea Party movement was conceived last winter as a populist protest to expansionist government. Borrowing the language of the American Revolution, protesters spoke out against President Obama’s plans. By September, an estimated 75,000 Tea Partiers arrived in Washington to make their small-government case. And they’re threatening to become a force to be reckoned with in conservative ranks; the ascendancy of Marco Rubio as a viable Republican candidate for Senate in Florida has been held up as a clear sign of their influence.
But there are other aspects to the Nashville event that might offend the grassroots. The party isn’t cheap: Three days of seminars leading up to Saturday night’s surf and turf banquet and Palin’s after-dinner speech costs $549 (the price tag for seeing Palin alone: $349). On the menu for the three-day affair: something called rainbow salad, flourless dark Venezuelan chocolate cake (thanks, Hugo Chavez!)—and “bananamisu,” a variation on the Italian staple, tiramisu. Throw in three nights at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, and the stay will cost $900 minimum—and that doesn’t include transportation costs. Palin herself is rumored to be pulling in a cool $100,000 for her keynote address.
Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips, who did not return repeated phone calls from The Daily Beast, seems to anticipate how such expenses could make for bad PR. He writes on the convention Web site, “Fifty people in a small Tea Party group for example each investing $10-$20 would take care of most of the costs to a delegate. This is not a huge investment money but information wise it will yield huge returns.”
Says Brandon of FreedomWorks: “This is a recession. Some folks are going to find it prohibitively expensive.”
The internal sniping must be music to the Democrats’ ears. But the Republicans, who have been debating how warmly to embrace the Tea Party crowd, seem to be endorsing the event.
Palin will be introduced by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), whose district borders Nashville. Rep. Bachmann will be speaking, and RNC Chairman Michael Steele has been invited as well. “I’d love for him to come to something like this and see the energy,” says organizer Mark Skoda of the Memphis Tea Party. (Steele has not yet said whether he’d accept the invitation, though he told Fox News last week, “if I wasn’t doing this job”—party chairman—“I’d be out there with the Tea Partiers.”) The Tennessee Republican Party is laying out the welcome mat. “We’re pleased this event is taking place in our state, and I plan on attending to join others who believe in preserving the principles of individual freedom upon which this country was founded,” state chairman Chris Devaney told The Daily Beast in a written statement.
That Republican leaders would hurry down to attend is no surprise. For the conservative and populist wings of the base, a little Tea Party luster can go a long way right now. But it’s unclear at this stage of the 2010 campaign whether the movement will wind up working for the GOP—or against it.
Consider the case of Frederic O’Neal, an Orlando lawyer who officially registered the Tea Party in Florida, and plans to field candidates to challenge incumbents of both parties. Last month’s poll showing that a generic Tea Party candidate would outrun a generic Republican one in congressional races will only embolden those Tea Partiers who seek to maintain their independence from the GOP.
For FreedomWorks, the national convention feels apiece with a yearning for a third party. Indeed, such a sentiment proves they have no nefarious control over the movement, Brandon says.
“When this movement first started, folks liked to say that shadowy Dick Armey is running this. If anything, that myth has been blown up on this,” Brandon says.
Meanwhile, the Nashville groups claim their meeting has no third-party aspirations.
“I know Judson Phillips well,” Memphis Tea Party’s Skoda says of the Tea Party Nation founder. “This is not a third party. It is absolutely the case.”
But he’s not ready to be a part of the two-party system, either—remaining defiantly in favor of a decentralized, leaderless movement that is, by definition, a little hard to organize.
“No heads, no beheading,” Skoda says.
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.