A police officer leaned against an unused barricade near city hall in Manhattan Wednesday night. The crowd the barriers were meant to contain was still a short walk away, gathered in front of the city's 97-year-old seat of government to vent their collective conservative anger at one of 750 Tax Day "tea party" rallies. (Story continued below...)
"It's a pretty big protest," the patrolman commented. Then, asked if it exceeded expectations, he pointed to the unused railings. "Not quite."
The officer's offhand analysis frames the popular narrative of the moment: nearly every political pundit in the media sphere—conservative or liberal—has been bickering over attendance numbers, as if a certain benchmark would make the tea parties a legitimate social movement. All of which should be irrelevant, if the Republicans have learned their lesson and understood the political power of Netroots organizing. The fact that a cadre of GOP stalwarts are eating up airtime arguing about crowd estimates and defending the grassroots bona fides of the tea-party movement suggests they do not.
Largely set in motion by conservatives outside the Republican core and organized over the Web, the tea parties have been embraced by conservative leaders as the GOP's own version of a grassroots uprising.
"Through technology, using Twitter especially, we've created a grassroots movement," said Amy Kremer, the national organizer for the events. On a site Kremer launched, taxdayteaparty.com, she listed the tea parties across the country, giving each its own listing announcing the time and place as well as any Facebook page, Twitter feed or personal Web site connected to the event or its organizers.
In some locations, the combination of online organizing and conservative star power pulled in the crowds. Nearly 2,000 people turned out in lower Manhattan, where Newt Gingrich was the headliner, chanting, "Audit the Fed," "U.S.A." and "Schumer sucks," in reference to Chuck Schumer, the Democratic senator from across the East River in Brooklyn. The events were technically nonpartisan, but the rhetoric was solid red, as many in the crowd vented their anger at President Obama. "You know, just because someone is charismatic does not mean that they should be running the banks," said Cecily Rassias, a Floridian who attended the protest decked out in a Colonial cap filled to the brim with English tea bags. "We're here to speak out against our government's socialist policies."
The scene played out at small and large gatherings across the country. In Boston, speakers in Colonial uniforms spoke to a crowd of 500 that had gathered in the historic Common. In Washington, D.C., the National Park Service thwarted protesters gathered in Lafayette Square as they planned to dump 1 million tea bags; the local broadcast media quickly reported that the event's organizers lacked the proper permits. In Hartford, Conn., 3,000 protesters gathered to dump tea, but media outlets couldn't resist pointing out that 40,000 people showed up to a protest just a few years ago when the state first enacted a personal income tax.
Everywhere, the protest message was predictably hazy. Signs supporting gun rights and opposing abortion mixed with those decrying Obama's stimulus package or bailouts for Wall Street firms. The crowds at some rallies embraced the local and national Republicans who showed up. Those at others jeered them as part of the problem. That, of course, is the issue with online organizing. It's hard to maintain message control when that message is being managed by thousands of individuals empowered to run their own shows.
Throughout the day, Kremer's site posted updates from the field. Among the missives was a claim that "the extreme left-wing and reporters for the mainstream media who go to cocktail parties" had been undermining these protests and fudging the numbers of the attendees of events. A legion of conservative commentators have picked up that narrative, Fox News pundit Sean Hannity among them. "Despite the overwhelming turnout in Atlanta and other cities throughout the country, the mainstream media has, for the most part, refused to cover the tea parties," claimed a post on Hannity's blog.
Hannity, of course, has a personal stake in this. The tea-party movement incubated online after CNBC's Rick Santelli exhorted his viewers to revolt against government spending. But then it leaped to TV, specifically to Hannity, who encouraged his viewers to start their own tea parties. He announced that he would be hosting his Wednesday show from the site of Atlanta's party, and that Newt Gingrich would be visiting New York's. The underlying implication was that the Republican establishment was ready to embrace this Net-spawned movement, that it had learned from the errors of an election past.
That's not the way it looks today. A year ago, when the Obama campaign was heralded for harnessing the Internet, social-media experts weren't talking about the millions of Facebook groups, or the myriad tweets and blog posts. Instead, the Dems were praised for having the savvy to turn their online organizing and social-media efforts into a modern, and massive, voter directory. Collecting supporters' data through mybarackobama.com and myriad other efforts, the campaign then disseminated that information to local organizers around the country. If you wanted to be among the first to know who Obama was picking as his running mate, you had to enroll in a text-message program. Later these same numbers were sent a text reminder to vote.
The problem, for tea-party-loving Republicans, is that these innovative strategies weren't the stuff of politicians; they were the work of geeks like Chris Hughes, who left his post as a founder of Facebook to run Obama's Web operations. Hannity and Gingrich may have helped to lure a few hundred more people to the events in Atlanta and New York, and surely drew more traditional-media attention, but their inflated involvement did nothing to turn the tea party's one-day venting into something of lasting value to a party looking to rebuild.
That was the chance the GOP missed on April 15. Instead of looping all the tea-party groups into one database in order to mine that information over the weeks and months to come, the party outsourced the online legwork to an outsider from Atlanta. In lieu of working on how they will keep Wednesday's protestors engaged through 2012, conservatives are arguing over how many showed up. And in place of standing back and reaping the long-term information wealth generated by a predictably chaotic event, party leaders inserted themselves into awkward situations that could make for great attack ads in 2012. For the GOP, none of these things seems worthy of a party.