It was a good week for proclamations, with Washington conservative leaders, tea party activists, and the GOP all touting statements of principle as thousands of conservatives came to town for the annual CPAC conference. The GOP’s statement has yet to be released, but each group’s intentions have nonetheless been scrutinized and parsed by the media in what feels like a political version of the eHarmony compatibility test.
Will the tea partiers drag the GOP toward the unelectable fringe? Will the conservative movement tap into the antiestablishment energy of the tea partiers? Will the Republican party adopt the ideas of either? Can they all come together without sullying the grassroots authenticity of the tea party movement? Will they or won’t they form a third party? Is this the beginning of a beautiful relationship, or is someone going to get used?
Sixteen miles from the Capitol, at the Mount Vernon home of President George Washington, a group of conservatism’s gray eminences gathered to sign the Mount Vernon Statement—a noncontroversial (to conservatives) manifesto to unite and recommit their movement to the “ideas of the American Founding” in the “critical political and policy battles ahead.”
As a George Washington impersonator presided over the signing of the oversized Declaration-style document, a couple of newcomers mingled with such Beltway fixtures as former attorney general Ed Meese and the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins. Jenny Beth Martin and Mark Meckler of tea party Patriots, a loosely organized national umbrella group, had come to town for the unveilings of both this document and a tea party document.
It wasn’t the only odd juxtaposition of outsiders with insiders this week. A handful of tea party leaders had an hours-long meeting with RNC chair Michael Steele at the Capitol Hill Club—a locale the media gleefully chortled was too elitist for the group. “The club is a place for Oysters Rockefeller and pictures of Eisenhower, not tricorn hats and Don’t-Tread-on-Me flags,” Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post (proving either he had never set foot in the decidedly non-swank building or assumed his readers wouldn’t know better).
But what the press often portrays as a prickly fight over the soul of the Republican party looked more like a first date, with both sides attempting to make a good impression. The tea partiers wanted to introduce themselves, and Republicans and conservative leaders were happy to meet them in light of their new electoral credibility after Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts.
“The atmosphere was very positive,” said RNC communications director Doug Heye of the meeting, which he said was initiated by tea party activists and ran more than an hour beyond its hour-long slot on Steele’s schedule. Steele “made it very clear that he was going to answer every question. I think that really created a lot of good will with the people who were there in the room.”
When tea party activists held an unveiling for their own document— the Contract From America—at CPAC on Thursday, heavy hitters like former House majority leader Dick Armey and Senator Jim DeMint were there, but noticeably took a back seat to tea party activists, who referred to themselves as “leaderless” no fewer than five times.
Ryan Hecker, a Houston lawyer who devised the plan to create a tea party platform using thousands of ideas and online votes from activists, exemplified the unpolished, grassroots nature of the press conference when he fumbled the microphone while stalling for DeMint’s arrival. As the mike’s crash quieted, he smiled and said, “As you can tell I’m kind of a newbie at this stuff.”
Like Hecker, many of the tea party activists at CPAC for the first time this year acknowledged they are new at the game, but are also confident that’s their strength. Polling suggests they are right, with voters sour on Washington and both parties. As for the politicians, they made sure to show proper respect to the new activists. Every major speaker gave kudos to the tea party movement from the CPAC dais on Thursday.
House minority leader John Boehner was no exception. “The Republican party should not attempt to co-opt the tea parties,” he said. “I think that’s the dumbest thing in the world. What we will do as long as I’m the leader is respect them, listen to them, and walk amongst them. The other party will never, ever do that.”
The tea partiers are often portrayed unfairly as either far-right rubes or stealth agents of big business. Talking to those at CPAC, it was obvious that being new to the political process doesn’t mean they’re bad at it.
In the case of the Contract From America, Hecker and California activist Scott Graves seem to have walked a line remarkably well, offering a loosely organized movement some direction without destroying enthusiasm by declaring a list of principles from on high. Thousands of tea party activists submitted policy ideas, the most popular of which could be voted on at the contract website. In the end, the wisdom of crowds created a list of 22 mostly sober and some specific policy ideas, including sunset provisions for regulations, term limits, and rules for greater government transparency. That list will be whittled down to a top 10 in another open, online voting process.
“The process is what’s new,” said Graves, who spent hours programming ContractFromAmerica.org in his spare time. “The right generally has done a . . . horrible job of presenting anything online, but I think some of the right has picked up on the lessons of 2008.”
Indeed, ContractFromAmerica.org is a sophisticated looking site, with the potential to empower rank-and-file tea partiers on matters of substance in a way that even Obama supporters admit his famously people-powered campaign was not able to do. The left-leaning Micah Sifry, cofounder of Personal Democracy Forum, noted that while the Obama campaign marketed itself as “people-centric,” it “shared tasks with its supporters but didn’t share power.” A grassroots movement that is not yoked to a presidential campaign will likely be better suited to do that.
But the independence of the tea party movement, and of individual tea party chapters is important, West Chester, Penn., activist Rich Davis told me, because the tea partiers aren’t all anti-Obama all the time—a point the national news media often miss.
Davis, a Navy veteran wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an eagle, “Limited Government,” and “In God We Trust,” said he’s making change happen in his hometown, where an 8-1 left-leaning majority on the local school board was shrunk to a 5-4 advantage for Democrats in the November elections thanks to tea party activism.
“We’re getting smart,” he said, explaining that knowledge of the local Republican party’s committee and endorsement system had allowed conservatives to pick up dozens of vacant spots within the party organization.
Davis began his political activism as a lone counter-protester to the Chester County Peace Movement about two years ago. Standing on the side of a local intersection, homemade sign in hand, he said he first heard the silent majority.
“We were getting a lot of honks, a lot of support,” he said. “To turn the honks into votes, we needed to get involved.”
Standing alongside a grassroots activist in full tri-cornered patriot regalia, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform echoed Davis’s emphasis on the local.
“These are all ideas that can be done on the national level . . . which is good,” Norquist said of the Contract From America. “But they’re also ideas that can happen at a state legislative level. There are 513,000 local elected officials in this country. This can be a platform for officials to run in 513,000 elections, not just congressional elections.”
Last April 15, when I spoke to North Carolina conservative Ben Hobbs after the first large tea party event, he said what a lot of conservatives were thinking about activism in the wake of Obama’s election.
“I might become a little conservative ACORN,” he said, referring to the network of leftist “community organizers.” “I don’t want to be just like them. We can do it politely, but we’ve got to do more,” Hobbs said.
If the tea partiers at CPAC and the attention they’re garnering are any indication, “newbies” like Hecker and Davis have learned quickly.
Mary Katharine Ham is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.