Tea Party reaches boiling point

Group enjoys constant media attention and claims a string of political successes; analysts say it may grow into a serious force.

WASHINGTON // A conservative grassroots political movement that has received a groundswell of media attention and affected recent US elections - including the one that handed Ted Kennedy's former Senate seat to Republicans - could be developing into a formidable force before the 2010 midterm elections, some analysts say.

The so-called Tea Party movement - named in reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when opposition to a British tax on tea led Bostonians to hurl boxes of it into the city's harbour - trumpets strict fiscal conservatism and rejects big government spending, tax rises and almost anything related to Barack Obama's presidency. Organisers say the movement, spawned last year in a series of impassioned street protests, now has millions of followers, many of whom talk of "patriotism", "tyranny" and "revolution" as if the country were still under British rule. In recent months, Tea Partyers have sought to maximise their political effect by volunteering for political campaigns and funnelling donations to Tea Party-approved candidates.

While acknowledging that the movement remains "amateurish", the conservative writer David Brooks wrote last month in The New York Times that the Tea Party is "likely to outgrow its crude beginnings and become a major force in American politics". Whether or not the movement will be play a pivotal role at the ballot box this year remains to be seen, according to Rhodes Cook, an independent elections analyst based in Virginia. But he said the near-constant media attention and a political platform that corresponds with broad populist anger over the economy and rising debt have given the Tea Party a say in the national political discourse.

"They are vocal; they are out on the streets, and they are photogenic while everyone else is staying warm indoors," he said, noting that a similar fervour is lacking among liberals. "They've shown a knack for gaining attention, but the jury is still out on the movement as a vote-getting force." Tea Party organisers already have claimed some electoral success. Scott Brown's unlikely Republican victory in Massachusetts last month, they claim, was made possible by an influx of Tea Party activists and donations.

The movement also threatens established Republican candidates, from Florida to California, who suddenly face challenges from the right from Tea Party-backed candidates. In New York's 23rd congressional district, where a Democrat ultimately won, the surging popularity of a conservative candidate, Doug Hoffman, a Tea Party darling, forced the Republican Party's pick to quit the race. "We are absolutely growing in influence," said Eric Odom of Illinois, one of the movement's original organisers, noting that the movement does not target Democrats or Republicans, per se, but rather any candidate who does not adhere to strict conservative values.

The movement, in fact, has its ideological roots in the presidency of George W Bush, whom many conservatives criticised for overspending. Mr Bush authorised massive and costly initiatives to make prescription drugs more affordable and fund education reforms, not to mention the bank bailout plan of US$700 billion (Dh2.6 trillion) he approved at the height of the financial crisis. But it was not until Mr Obama's presidency, in the wake of the financial crisis, that the Tea Party began to take shape. Mr Obama's liberal agenda was seen as particularly threatening and his $787bn stimulus package was viewed as an unacceptable expenditure that led many to take to the streets.

Last February, an estimated 30,000 people in 40 cities turned out for the first round of Tea Party rallies. A few weeks later, on April 15, US Tax Day, the protests spread to more than 800 cities, drawing hundreds of thousands. Since then, the Tea Party has snowballed and continues to gain momentum, according to Debbie Dooley, a 51-year-old systems analyst in Atlanta and another of the Tea Party's original organisers.

"Americans just grew sick of it," said Mrs Dooley, who now spends 30 hours a week organising rallies and corresponding with fellow frustrated conservatives. "You have millions of Americans yelling out their windows: 'We are mad as hell and we are not going to take this.'" Still, the controversial views and rhetoric of some Tea Party activists have served to undermine its credibility as a viable political platform, some say. The movement, for example, is now home to many "birthers", who question Mr Obama's US citizenship, and gun-rights activists, some of whom tote firearms at Tea Party rallies. Placards depicting Mr Obama as Adolf Hitler and signs carrying messages that border on racism have become staples of some Tea Party protests.

One of the movement's top supporters in Congress, Michele Bachmann, a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, often generates headlines with her criticisms of Mr Obama, including her accusation that he is "anti-American". Other politicians courting the movement, such as Rick Perry, the Texas governor, herald their support for "states' rights" and talk openly about secession. For now, the Tea Party remains a decentralised network of local groups with no national leadership. But there have been efforts to unite the disparate groups into something resembling a new political party.

The movement held its inaugural convention in Nashville, Tennessee, this month, featuring a speech by Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate. At the convention, organisers announced the launch of a political action committee, which expects to raise nearly $10 million for Tea Party-approved candidates this year. The convention, however, also exposed rifts among the various Tea Party groups. Several state chapters chose not to attend, citing, among other things, concerns about cost - $549 per ticket plus $349 to attend Mrs Palin's speech.

For now, Ron Miller, a Tea Party organiser in Maryland and one of the movement's few black members, said the movement remains united behind its opposition to "big government" policies and Mr Obama's agenda. Limited government and no taxation "are the things that we use as the unifying force that brings all these disparate groups together", he said. Mrs Dooley in Atlanta said she expects the movement to continue to gain traction as more grow frustrated with the country's leadership.

"We are just ordinary citizens reclaiming America's founding principles," she said. "We are battling for the soul and direction of our nation." sstanek@thenational.ae