Inside the Tea Party War Room

March 17th, 2010 at 3:48 pm | 18 Comments |

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Large rallies are the most distracting part of the Tea Party movement. They provide a colorful array of speakers, posters, and period-era costumes for the media to obsess over, while ignoring the movement’s actual legwork. As the March 16th “Kill the Bill” rally was happening, a motley group of activists had set up a Tea Party “War Room” in the Capitol Hill Suites. From this “War Room” they sent organized volunteers to go and pressure vulnerable house Democrats to vote against the healthcare bill. The Tea Party’s ability to organize these activists might be more important than their colorful protests.

The “War Room” had a very different feel from the rally.  It was a small and cramped meeting space in the Capitol Hill Suites annex. The most important piece of technology in the room was an easel with a giant pad of paper. On it, they had written up a list of vulnerable house Democrats that volunteers should lobby in their officers (Representative Jason Altmire was top of the list because he announced he was undecided on healthcare.)

The war room crowd was much older and calmer then the rally crowd. This is significant in a movement that is decidedly not a product of the millennial generation. At the rally, there were families with children and people in their thirties, while in the war room the crowd tended to be in their fifties or older, and brought no children. They also were much less eccentric than some of the people at the rally: no one was in period era costume, and no one was waving any “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.

It will remain a great irony for historians that while Organizing for America failed to tap the enthusiasm of the millennials who voted for Obama to win in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, the Tea Party was able to cultivate a robust group of middle aged and septuagenarian activists.

In the war room, the activists would file in and get met with friendly help from the organizers. One woman would announce: “If anyone needs help with a press release, I have a template on my laptop” and someone would come over to get help writing a press release about how a New York congressman ignored her. Two men from Maryland would head over to the easel and ask, “What do you suggest we do? We’re just two guys who are from Maryland” (a state with no vulnerable Democrats) and an organizer at the easel would say, “The question is” (while flipping through his chart) “who hasn’t had any visitors today? Connecticut, how about that?”

Tom Whitmore was the grandfatherly figure overseeing the operation. Although calm in demeanor, he was also multitasking between sending out groups and making sure each group had a video camera to capture anything that might be worth putting on YouTube. I asked someone if they knew when Tom would finish and have time for an interview. “Tom will never finish unless you interrupt him” was the response.

Eventually, there was a lull in the volunteers and Tom had time to gleefully explain what they were doing. Tom was bringing order to the chaos of the Tea Party movement, “the job that we have is to teach them how to take that energy, and how to go beyond the movement, how to go beyond the rally and the sign waving and the chanting, and translate that into real change.”

Tom also made clear his positive opinions on the Tea Party’s ability to work with Republicans, saying they had “a natural affinity with the Republican Party… that’s why we ask them for some signs, and some buttons and things.” He was part of Michael Steele’s meeting with the Tea Party leaders and had previously blogged on how it was a “wake up call” for the RNC. Though he did say that it was an education for many of the first time Tea Party activists as well, “It was a very fruitful meeting, the RNC learned a lot of things, the Tea Party learned a lot of things. A lot of them [Tea Party activists] didn’t know how this whole electoral process works.”

Tom and his War Room were part of the “Take the Townhalls to Washington” campaign, which in turn is a project of Mark Skoda, a Tea Party organizer who helped run the National Tea Party convention and has been described by some as the Tea Party’s “pragmatist.” Sending volunteers into targeted offices and coordinating media releases is an example of translating the raw emotion of screaming “Kill the Bill” into an actual plan, as Tom put it, “You work with something like this, where you have a plan, and you execute the plan.”

At the Washington Independent, David Weigel notes that the size of the rally was not impressive:

The Code Red rally was small, drawing around 300 people into a noisy circle. So was the FreedomWorks “People’s Surge,” which sent Tea Party activists onto Capitol Hall to seek out one-on-one meetings with members of Congress whose votes could decide the fate of healthcare reform. Both events were mocked for their size, by Democrats and liberal groups that had grown used to explosive media coverage of the conservative movement.

This makes sense, the emotion that inspires people to attend rallies can ebb and flow. In contrast, Tom seemed more committed to the Tea Party vision, he said he was not content when Scott Brown was elected and that he tried to pressure his activist colleagues to keep the pressure up on congress. While he admitted that overall attendance was low, he was still able to see the silver linings, “It wasn’t like past rallies but who would have expected [that]… [for] the other rallies [the April 15th tax day rally and the 9/12 march] they spent six months planning them.”

The Tea Party movement’s long term viability is likely dependent on people who can actually get volunteers to do more then just bring a flag to a rally. Even if attendance was small, its hard to refute the notion that they didn’t achieve anything, “people dropped what they were doing on a two or three day notice — the rally was only announced three or four days ago — and our whole effort only started ten days ago.” Even if the healthcare bill does become law, in other measures, the movement may still be enjoying limited success.

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18 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    What an appropriate picture…..with Buck Turgidson at the center!

  • LFC

    And still we have not one idea of what substantive things the Tea Party is actually FOR. They want low taxes and less government, but we can’t touch defense spending, Social Security, or Medicare, and debt payments can’t be touched, so that leaves … what exactly?

    If they want to be taken seriously, they have to start proposing some beliefs that add up.

  • sinz54

    LFC: They want low taxes and less government, but we can’t touch defense spending, Social Security, or Medicare, and debt payments can’t be touched, so that leaves … what exactly?
    Over on RedState.com, they dream of cutting every other Cabinet department by 50%. (No, they didn’t exclude Homeland Security from their proposed budget axe.)

    I sympathize to some degree. The Federal response to Hurricane Katrina might have been more efficient, if FEMA had been left alone, instead of being swallowed up by the Homeland Security colossus.

  • ottovbvs

    “Over on RedState.com, they dream of cutting every other Cabinet department by 50%. (No, they didn’t exclude Homeland Security from their proposed budget axe.)’

    ……And these folks are supposed to represent reality?…..the real laugh is that the two greatest periods of increase in federal spending over the past 40 years occurred during the presidencies of….yep you guessed it…..Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush!!

  • COProgressive

    LFC wrote;
    “And still we have not one idea of what substantive things the Tea Party is actually FOR.”

    From what I can tell, and I’ll admit it don’t follow the Tea Party’s agenda too closely, they are for calling themselves “Patriots”, the are for rants, they are for raves, they are for crude signage, they are for spliting the Republican Party, they are for Sarah Palin, they are for Glenn Beck, they are for “taking their country back”, they are for making BIG mistakes in estimating crowds, they are for being the tools of “Astro-turf” manipulators and I wish them luck and lots of camera time. Because the more they are seen, the more they will be rejected as “WingNUTS”.

  • COProgressive

    ottovbvs wrote;
    “the real laugh is that the two greatest periods of increase in federal spending over the past 40 years occurred during the presidencies of….yep you guessed it…..Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush!!”

    I guess you didn’t get Dick Cheney’s memo. Running up federal spending is just fine, nothing to worry about because you know……..

    “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” – Dick Cheney – Economic Genius(?) & American Terrorist

  • Independent

    LFC writes: “If they want to be taken seriously, they have to start proposing some beliefs that add up.”

    Well, I don’t know about that, LFC.

    Your guy, Obama, and all the Obami have gotten away for over 20 months of campaigns and governing proposing all kinds of “beliefs” about HC reform that never, ever add up.

    It hasn’t hurt their game. They’re still pushing it and it still doesn’t add up to anything more than an extension of the Welfare State and huge, massive deficits with generational theft and staggering debt.

  • agentprovocateur

    “They’re still pushing it and it still doesn’t add up to anything more than an extension of the Welfare State and huge, massive deficits with generational theft and staggering debt.”

    I guess Medicare Part D was an anti-Welfare State measure? The passage of that particular program as well as the huge, massive deficits with generational theft and staggering debt that happened well before January 20, 2009 prove that such things are just fine as long as they are championed by Republicans.

  • BoolaBoola

    The “tea parties” are a bunch of hired goons, hired by President Obama’s corporate enemies, pretenting to be a grass-roots movement.

  • Traveler51

    Independent

    “Your guy, Obama, and all the Obami have gotten away for over 20 months of campaigns and governing proposing all kinds of “beliefs” about HC reform that never, ever add up.”

    A Latin plural would be “Obamae” as in agenda/agendae. Perhaps you are thinking of Octopus/Octopi.

  • Independent

    Nope, Traveler, the Obami refers to the Worshipful Cult that surrounds our Fearless Leader –you know, Gibbs, Alexrod, Emanuel, et al… at least the ones that haven’t been tossed under the Obama Bus yet. It use to include Obama’s trusted religious leader, Rev Wright, and the Obama family babysitter and personal friend –the Ayers… but those guys got hit early.

    It seemed fitting to tag these ObamaBots as a collective Obami. It got started when the Democrats gave in to the Obami in Denver and built the fake greek temple of worship… and then we had the most expensive Inaugural ever for the most pompous 1st Family ever… hey, when the Democrats only get to do those once a decade, I get they need to splurge and make it memorable –even if most of America was deep in a recession and families were losing their homes faster than the Obami can hire lobbyists into the WH.

    Thanks for the lesson in latin –had 4 yrs of it in Catholic high school.

  • Noah Kristula-Green

    Glad to see the comment thread is proceeding smoothly!

    LFC Says:
    “And still we have not one idea of what substantive things the Tea Party is actually FOR. They want low taxes and less government, but we can’t touch defense spending, Social Security, or Medicare, and debt payments can’t be touched, so that leaves … what exactly?

    If they want to be taken seriously, they have to start proposing some beliefs that add up.”

    I think you hit on a good point. I am personally interested in how the Tea Party movement will try to reconcile the desire to cut spending, with the intent to keep at least some of the programs that they benefit from.

    This is where I think that surveys such as the recent FrumForum Tea Party survey could be useful. Do Tea Party Movement members think there is more waste and “corruption” (in the broadest sense of the term) then there are entitlements? How many of them consider entitlements to be a form of “waste”? Does age affect these perspectives?

    After all, it’s not clear how many Tea Party members are aware of what would happen to them if the Paul Ryan budget was made law tomorrow.

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  • athensboy

    Where was the teaparty when GWB was running up the deficit? Or did they organize because the president is a black,liberal, Democrat? They should just call themselves Brownshirts because they are un-educated goons.

  • Independent

    Athens boy, fresh from a day od soulful worship inside the Obami’s Greek Temple, writes: “Where was the teaparty when GWB was running up the deficit?”

    Easy answer, greek boy. They were sitting at home, angry and disorganized, not yet coalesced into a powerful, influential movement.

    Karl Rove, in his new best selling book, has a chapter on these conservatives who did indeed sit home and not come out in vote for W in 2004 because of the very reason you mention –deficits and federal spending. They liked W’s tax cuts but really wanted spending reigned in as well and W didn’t do that, what with 3 wars to fight.

    Greek boy continues: “Or did they organize because the president is a black,liberal, Democrat?” Hey, there’s a good little democrat farLeft activist for you –play that race card with some spite? Race-bait much, greek boy?

    The TP Movement organized because Obama and the Obami are mostly socialists, if not collectivists, pushing their agenda upon a majority of Americans who still think of themselves as center-Right people. It has nothing to do with race. Heck, they even used the makeup from Heath Ledger’s joker character and didn’t blacken-up Obama’s mixed race cocoa skin for better contrast. What do you want?

    By the way, the only brownshirts these days are the Obami Chicago Thug Machine goons playing fast & loose with the truth –and the political lives of about 40 once-safe-4-reelection Democrats.

    But for someone who race baits like you, I guess misusing a term like brownshirt is all in a day’s worship, right?

  • sinz54

    Ottovbs:

    Most of the rise in Federal spending under Reagan was in nominal dollars. As you recall, inflation was quite high back then, so the Federal budget had to increase just to maintain a level amount of inflation-adjusted spending.

    For example, in 1982, Federal spending increased 10%. But so did inflation that year. So the inflation-adjusted rate of increase was about ZERO.

    http://www.huppi.com/kangaroo/55More.htm

    On the other hand:

    Bush 43 was a disaster for fiscal conservatism. Medicare Part D was a disaster.

    You won’t find RedState.com or the Tea Party movement defending Bush’s domestic record. They supported Bush because of the War on Terror, and because of their natural desire to protect a socially conservative president from the bitter attacks coming from the Left.

  • Gus

    “Karl Rove, in his new best selling book” words guaranteed to inspire confidence that the rest of the sentence will be pure bs.

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