On a rain-soaked Wednesday morning, for nearly four hours, people streamed into Lafayette Park across from the White House for the D.C. tea party protest. What unfolded was not exactly what the organizers, the media, or the Republican Party expected.
The rally started off with a glitch that wound up as a blessing in disguise for the organizers. Organizers had originally planned two rallies, one in front of the Treasury building about a block away and one in the park. After being assured by police that the Treasury location would be available, organizers were informed early Wednesday that they could not gather there. As a result, two locations were combined and a larger, more impressive gathering came together in the park. At its peak, the crowd topped 1,000 — perhaps 1,500 by an informal count.
These were hardly professional protesters — or dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Many said they had never attended a rally before. One woman sporting a pink umbrella and pig-shaped balloon explained that the bailouts, spending, and lack of personal responsibility motivated her to come out from a Virginia suburb. Indeed, there were many out-of-towners — students from Pennsylvania, a couple from Kentucky, and many parent and children combinations. The dad from Maryland with his 11-year-old daughter said he’d never been to a political protest in his life but found it unconscionable to pass on thousands of dollars of debt to his daughter. It was in some ways a throwback to a bygone era of homemade signs, colorful costumes, and non-professional politicians. Not a single elected leader spoke from the small makeshift stage.
So what do these people want? While labeled a “tax protest” by many media outlets, the most common items mentioned by those attending and speaking were bailouts, runaway spending, the growing deficit, “generation theft” (i.e., passing on an unsustainable debt to their children and grandchildren), and a loss of personal accountability. It was the sort of protest the Wall Street Journal editorial board would have designed if they were asked to come up with their ideal rally.
While some carried signs about immigration and even one vowing to do away with the Federal Reserve, the message was rather consistent and the tone hostile: they are very upset with the current administration and Congress’ handling of fiscal and economic issues.
But Republicans should not be rejoicing quite yet. Many protesters went out of their way to say they are upset with both parties and hold George W. Bush equally responsible for launching the now never-ending stream of bailouts. And the crowd, if anything, was libertarian in bent rather than conservative. These people are advocating less government, restraints on federal power, and a return to “constitutional government.” Social conservatives who seek expansion of state power on issues from abortion to support for faith-based programs may find themselves at odds with a newly invigorated movement to shrink government and enhance individual liberty.
It is not clear whether this is the making of a new political party or a flash in the pan. What it does show is that the absence of a single Republican leader does not hinder some impressive grassroots organizing. It also shows that young conservatives, who were out in abundance in Lafayette Park even in the pouring rain, do know how to organize through new media including Twitter. And it shows that for conservatives and libertarians, the Obama presidency is a powerful organizing tool. Just as the Left coalesced in opposition to George W. Bush, these activists are, to a large extent, acting out of resentment and anger toward the president and Democratic congressional leaders.
The proof will be in the pudding. If we see an influx of new candidates, activists, and volunteers stemming from the tea party movement, Wednesday will be seen as a significant day in modern political history and new media-based organizing. If the activists go home, never to be seen again, then the day will recede in memory as another failed attempt to shake the political status quo. Stay tuned.