Is Tea Party a Lasting Power in Politics?

It was conventional wisdom to dismiss the tea-party activists who disrupted town-hall meetings around the country last summer as a bunch of crazies orchestrated by Republican activists. They equated President Obama's policies with socialism, communism, and fascism, whichever -ism was handy, and their angry rhetoric was so over the top that Democrats dismissed them as a fringe group not worth worrying about.

Less than half a year later, the tea-party movement is the tip of the spear shaping the White House policy agenda, putting Obama on the defensive on spending and forcing Democrats to elevate deficit reduction as a priority. Tea-party activists backing Scott Brown in Massachusetts showed a willingness to be pragmatic, setting aside divisive cultural issues and focusing on economic freedom and free markets.

The tea party polls higher with voters than the Democratic or Republican parties, and its grassroots followers are feeling flush with power. At a press conference this week in Washington, tea-party representatives from around the country gathered in the offices of Freedom Works, a conservative action group chaired by former Republican House leader Dick Armey and funded by like-minded corporations.

Freedom Works specializes in "AstroTurfing," ginning up grassroots campaigns, and the tea-partiers are sensitive about being seen as anybody's tool. "I'm not AstroTurf," insisted Ryan Hecker, a 29-year-old Houston lawyer who says he was drawn to the Tea Party Patriots through a social-networking site. He's now overseeing the Contract FROM America, which will be unveiled on April 15, Tax Day. Ideas from people around the country will be narrowed down to 20, subject to online voting, and become the movement's road map for politicians. "You have to listen to us now," says Hecker. "This is our show."

Reminded that Republican House leader John Boehner is crafting a similar document, dubbed "Better Solutions," Hecker rejected any commonality with the GOP, declaring the Republican Party has lost its legitimacy. He called the vote for TARP (the Troubled Assets Relief Program), "Republican cronyism at its worse," and predicted Boehner would eventually come crawling to the Tea Party Patriots to endorse the Contract FROM America.

Anger is the common denominator of these activists, and anger about what? The loss of their freedoms, and it doesn't get much more specific than that. One of two national co-coordinators of the 9/12 march on Washington last year said she doesn't have health insurance and she's proud of it. What if she gets hit by a bus? Who pays for her medical care? "I'd pay it off," she said. This is about her freedom to do what she wishes with her money. Nevermind that others would probably bear the costs, or that her decision could bankrupt her.

Tea-party people are libertarians, and on the state level, they are organizing around the notion of using the 10th Amendment (which affirms state's rights) to overturn health-care legislation—should it still pass by some miracle. It's hard to take their rhetoric seriously. Where else could they go in the world to be freer? It reminds me of the slogan shouted at antiwar protesters, "America, love it or leave it."

In calling for a modest freeze on some domestic spending, beginning in 2011, Obama is trying to tamp down the anger that the tea-party movement has sparked. The gesture will do nothing to mollify the purists, but perhaps independents might be wooed back by a sense that Obama heard them and feels their pain. The tea-party movement, though flush with victory, is splintered and headless, and may do less to shape elections in November than the GOP's tilt to the center in key elections, beginning with Scott Brown in Massachusetts, who is pro-choice and voted for Romney-Kennedy care as a state senator. The Massachusetts plan, which served as a model for the bill now before Congress, has 67 percent approval among Massachusetts voters.

Republicans are poised to run the table on iconic Democratic seats in November with Ron Kirk in Illinois (Obama's old seat) and Mike Castle in Delaware (Biden's). Kirk is pro-choice and anti-gun, and Castle supports embryonic-stem-cell research—positions that cement them as moderates.

Antigovernment populism on the right is getting all the attention, but the dissatisfaction among voters is about more than the deficit. It has to do with the way government does business. The Democrats' health-care-reform bill has a 31 percent approval rating in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. Explaining how such a piece of potentially ground-breaking social legislation could become such an albatross, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told a small group of reporters and columnists, "You can bake the pie or you can sell the pie. It's hard to do both at the same time."

Obama admonished Democrats in his State of the Union speech to not just run for the hills, and he told Republicans that their role has to be about more than saying no. Without such a response, a movement launched from the populist right could have an impact in November that leaves both parties twisting in the wind.

Eleanor Clift is also the author of Two Weeks of Life: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Politics and Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment.