Tea-Party Protests: Loud, Mad, and Dangerous (For Republicans)

I've just returned from the lawn outside the U.S. Capitol where so-called tea partiers are protesting health-care reform with chants such as "Kill the bill" and "We'll remember in November." It's hard to describe the gathering as anything other than a prototypical angry mob. The group is overwhelmingly white and skews older. And they're mad, some cruelly so. If you listen to Republicans, you'll hear that the health-reform bill outrages the overwhelming majority of Americans. But if this group of just a few hundred people who are angry at the government is the best the GOP could muster, then that claim looks pretty weak.

There's a small group of pro-reform protesters standing a few yards behind the tea partiers. I saw one brave young man—he couldn’t have been more than 16, braces and all—venture into the tea-party mob with a pro-health-reform sign. It didn't take long for this skinny kid to be accosted by half a dozen protesters more than twice his age, who promptly yelled down any of his favorable health-care statements. They were particularly incensed that the provision of health care isn't explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. When the kid fiercely retorted that America is a civilized country that should feel morally compelled to provide for the health of its citizens, they just shouted louder. So much for civility.

These people are angry, but they're not really angry about health-care reform. What they're really angry about is the idea that government itself is changing. Where Obama's supporters in 2008 hungered for change, this group is fearful of it, particularly when it's led by people whom they simply don’t relate to: a liberal congresswoman from California like Pelosi, a soft-spoken Mormon from a state famous for licentious gambling (Reid), or an erudite but seemingly aloof Harvard Law graduate (Obama). This is a crop of politicians whose motivations and ideas seem foreign and evidently scary for tea partiers. On an individual level, that makes them nervous. I've spoken with numerous tea partiers who are exceedingly polite and respectful, but they're genuinely worried, and sadly misinformed, about Democrats' intentions. It appears that when they're in a mutually reinforcing group, those nerves turn into barely restrained anger.

To some extent it serves the GOP's interest to stoke the anger of this smallish group outside the Capitol. Tea partiers drive news and have a proven ability to shift the terms of the debate to GOP-favored territory (see: death panels). But it's also a treacherous relationship for the GOP. This is the same loose grouping of people whose members yesterday were accused of chanting racial slurs at civil-rights hero Rep. John Lewis and hurling a homophobic epithet at openly gay Rep. Barney Frank.

Of course, the GOP doesn't condone such behavior. Minority Whip Eric Cantor rejected it outright today on This Week. Yet Republicans continue to encourage the sort of anger that boils over into such foul insults. It's certainly not the first time this has happened, and it won't be the last. And as they do, it becomes increasingly difficult for Republicans to just condemn the behavior and distance themselves. It's a difficult tightrope for them to walk: will a time come when encouraging the anger coincides with encouraging the slurs?

That's a call conservatives need to make, and they'll need to make it soon. Why? Because half a mile away there was another bigger, more diverse protest happening, a protest in favor of immigration reform. Republicans are playing with fire. They'll need to be more careful than ever when they start encouraging anger on that issue.