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The grass-roots conservative activists who march under the "Don't tread on me" Gadsden flag and the "tea party" label have put a new twist on Gandhi's maxim: First they were ignored; then they were ridiculed; then they began to fight. They battled health-care reform and then the Republican establishment, which became angry about the less-than-seasoned candidates it was suddenly saddled with.
In short order, a movement that few people took seriously has become the most obsessed-over and overanalyzed political backlash since the 1960s. And as long as both parties are grappling with it and publishers are putting out tea party books every month, it's worth busting a few myths about the movement.
1. The tea party isn't a reaction to President Obama, it's a reaction to the bank bailouts.
There are some kernels of truth here. The first modern tea party events occurred in December 2007, long before Barack Obama took office, and they were organized by supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) to raise money for his long-shot presidential bid. They received the respectful, hey-look-at-that coverage sometimes given a candidate flipping pancakes at a church social.
Some of the people recognized as leaders of the tea party movement, such as FreedomWorks Chairman Dick Armey, have loudly condemned the 2008 financial-sector rescue package. And several members of Congress, such as Sen. Bob Bennett (Utah), have been unable to survive their TARP votes when facing GOP primary voters.
Here's the thing, though: The tea parties were kicked off by CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's rant about, of all things, Obama's Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, an effort to lessen the damage to people who'd taken out mortgages they couldn't afford. And it picked up steam when conservative groups fired up activists about energy and health-care legislation -- the Obama agenda, not a last-ditch conservative plan to rescue the banking industry. If you think the tea party would have risen up to oppose a Republican president who spent like mad and violated conservative principles, then where was it in the Bush years?
2. The tea party is racist.
It's a phenomenon that some activists call "nutpicking" -- send a cameraman into a protest and he'll focus on the craziest sign. Yes, there are racists in the tea party, and they make themselves known. But tea party activists usually root them out. Texas activist Dale Robertson, who held a sign likening taxpayers to a racial epithet at a 2009 rally, was drummed out of that event and pilloried by his peers. Mark Williams, formerly the bomb-throwing spokesman for the Tea Party Express (he once told me he wanted to send the liberal watchdog group Media Matters "a case of champagne" for calling him racist), was booted after penning a parody that had the NAACP pining for slavery.
Liberal critics of the tea party argue that conservative opposition to social spending is often racially motivated. That's not new, though, and it's not the basis for the tea party.
3. Sarah Palin is the leader of the tea party.
After she and John McCain lost the 2008 election, and after eight unhappy months back at work governing Alaska, Sarah Palin took her time to reenter national politics. She spent the last half of 2009 writing Facebook posts that, for all the attention they got, mostly praised the work of people such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.). It wasn't until this past February, at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, that Palin picked up the movement's banner. Her credentials aren't ideal: Tea partiers unanimously agree that the TARP was what turned America's decline into a freefall; as a vice presidential candidate, Palin backed the TARP. But she showed plenty of political savvy and hitched herself to the movement, and reporters, eager to find a party politics angle to the tea party story -- and knowing that Palin's name brings traffic to news Web sites -- anointed her.
Palin has more devoted fans than any other Republican politician, but according to an April New York Times/CBS News poll, only 40 percent of self-identified tea party activists think she would be an "effective chief executive." They'd like to be leaderless for now, thank you very much. But the Tea Party Nation, which planned the Nashville event, and the Tea Party Express, which invited the former governor to rallies in Nevada and Massachusetts, knew they could get media to show up if Palin came along, and they won't forget that lesson.
4. The tea party hurts the GOP.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted recently that the tea party movement will "die out." Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), who lost his primary race to a tea party-backed candidate, has made the media rounds to accuse the movement and some of its heroes, such as Glenn Beck, of poisoning politics. There is no shortage of Republican grumbling about the primary wins of tea partiers Sharron Angle in Nevada and Rand Paul in Kentucky, two Senate candidates who are being hammered by Democrats for their anti-big-government rhetoric. Democrats are doing their best to make Republicans answer for it when tea party activists pledge to dismantle Social Security or the Environmental Protection Agency.
But in every political cycle there are "bad" candidates who say the wrong things -- and with the right electorate, they still win. The tea party movement is giving Republicans a dream of an electorate, one in which surveys find more GOP-inclined voters enthusiastic about casting ballots than voters who lean Democratic. Democrats have done some damage to the tea party brand -- its favorability has fallen in polls -- but in general, the presence of a new political force that is not called Republican and is not tied to George W. Bush has given the GOP a glorious opportunity to remake its image, at a time when trust in the party is very low. Some liberals deride the tea party as a new bottle for old Republican wine. But rebranding works. (Even Coca-Cola eventually benefited from the publicity of New Coke.)
5. The tea party will transform American politics.
Here, Sen. Graham has history on his side. A popular, and correct, aphorism about grass-roots movements is that they act like bees -- they sting, then die. Third parties fold into major parties, like the 19th century Populists did with the Democrats.
The tea party is unlikely to even reach third-party status, because the vast majority of its members -- up to 79 percent, in some polls -- identify as Republicans and are savvy enough not to take actions that would help Democrats. (Liberals only wish that Ralph Nader thought like this.) The movement's big innovations, such as fast organizing, are mostly technological, inspired by and improving on Obama's 2008 campaign. Their demands are really the same ones that conservative Republicans were making after Obama won, and that Rush Limbaugh and most GOP lawmakers were already making, too.
So the tea party will succeed, if it hasn't already, in making one of America's political parties more devoted to supply-side, pro-war-on-terror, anti-spending principles. But it is pushing on an open door.