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ObamaCare and the Tea Party Effect

Has the national anti-tax "tea party" movement had an effect on American politics? More specifically, have the "tea party patriots" slowed down or derailed the aggressive big-government agenda of the Barack Obama administration?

As measured by news coverage in the mainstream media, perhaps the quick answer is "not much." The mandarin sentiment of the press was captured in a New York Times' report on the April 15 tax day protests:

Although organizers insisted they had created a nonpartisan grass-roots movement, others argued that these parties were more of the Astroturf variety.

And who can forget Janeane Garofalo's attack from last April? Her comments came in an interview with Keith Olbermann:

[L]et's be very honest about what this is about. It's not about bashing Democrats, it's not about taxes, they have no idea what the Boston tea party was about, they don't know their history at all. This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. That is nothing but a bunch of teabagging rednecks. And there is no way around that.

Variants of that meme have been heard repeatedly since Rick Santelli delivered his rant on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade back in February. While some have argued that the grassroots protests were not to be discounted, the more common view was articulated by David Weigel at the Washington Independent: "Tea Party Movement Loses Steam."

Yet, here's the thing: Actually, the tea parties have hardly lost steam. Indeed, the country witnessed some of the most substantial anti-Obama rallies at exactly the same time of Weigel's writing. Tea partiers mounted two separate days of large demonstrations this month. On Independence Day, patriots from around the country took time away from family, friends, and food to attend anti-tax demonstrations. Turnout was substantial. In Tulare, California, 15,000 demonstrators attended a massive tea party rally in the Central Valley heartland. And in Texas, as Michelle Malkin reported, a truly phenomenal 37,000 protesters attended a "ten-gallon tea party" in Dallas.

Protesters mobilized again on July 17th. According to Altlanta's WXIA-TV, the "'Tea Party Patriots,' as they call themselves, staged 254 similar protests across the nation, 37 in Georgia." Oh sure, none of these events reached "ten-gallon" proportions. But the opposition is increasingly focused. And with good turnout of upwards of 250 protesters at some events, the day's activities were another big success for the movement.

But the July 17 demonstrations were noteworthy beyond their numbers. Protesters rallied against the Democratic "public option" health care reform that's been dubbed "ObamaCare." Event organizers held demonstrations at congressional offices, and thus real constituency pressure was brought to bear (in contrast to the earlier less-targeted attacks on the Obama administration as "socialist"). The response from Democratic officials ranged from unsympathetic to outright hostile. Most notoriously, staffers for Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill reportedly flipped protesters the bird while locking the doors, pulling the blinds, and calling the police. Indeed, demonstrators were ultimately forced off public property while rallying at the office of their representative to the United States Senate!

In Asheville, North Carolina, tea partiers received a chilly reception at the office of Congressman Heath Shuler. According to Silent Majority No More:

Our group called ahead well over a week in advance and requested that someone from Shuler’s office receive our petitions and comments. We were informed that they would not accept our petitions and that Shuler would not be there, but that someone would receive us.

In New York, the Gathering of Eagles protest group got more of the same:

We started the day outside Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s office in Garden City. ... We were joined by tenants and employees from that building! Security wanted us gone, and when we didn’t immediately comply they called the police.

In Orange County, California, protesters at the office of Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez also got the brushoff. According to the event's organizer, "Loretta's office was not too kind in letting us stand by the doors." The group moved to a public sidewalk adjacent to the main entry. Soon enough, the facility's office management showed up to demand the removal of demonstrators' vehicles from the property.

While isolated examples, these Democratic responses to the more recent, specifically-targeted protests are telling. According to one blogger, speaking of Senator McCaskill's office, "their fear tells us a lot":

Honestly, they called the cops on these people? What did they think, that a church’s ice cream social had got out early and now the participants were roaming the streets in a sugar and milk-fat induced frenzy seeking to drink the blood of leftists?

Conservatives feel it in their bones. Anti-tax sentiment is growing. But are the tea partiers themselves having an effect on policy?

Well, no doubt, things aren't going so smoothly for ObamaCare. Recent media reports have noted the administration's difficulties. See for example, the New York Times ("Democrats Grow Wary as Health Bill Advances"), the Washington Post, ("Obama Urges Bolder Action to Shrink Costs: Some Democrats Protest Surtax on Richest Americans") and USA Today ("Discord Grows Over Public Health Care Plan.") And President Obama, during his July 18 address to the nation, appeared increasingly anxious:

Now we know there are those who will oppose reform no matter what. ... The opponents of health insurance reform would have us do nothing.

A deep analysis of polling data is beyond the scope of this essay. We do know that the president's honeymoon has faded and independent voters are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the administration. As Marc Rotterman notes in a July 18 commentary: "Numerous polls reflect the growing skepticism of Obama's programs." And according to recent Gallup data on ideological trends, "Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, say their political views in recent years have become more conservative rather than more liberal." On top of this, there are reports that Obama backers have become frightened by the potential effects of large scale tea party events on local constituencies (see "Obama Donor and Supporter Forces Cancellation of Atlanta Tea Party").

And such political fears are increasing justified. At the state level, we've seen the immediate political impact of anti-tax sentiment. On May 19, California voters handed Goveror Arnold Schwarzenegger a massive defeat by repudiating his planned $16 billion tax increase. And in a stunning development, the governor subsequently launched a major media advertising blitz that adopted virtually whole cloth the platform of the anti-tax movement. In the ad buy "Stand for California," Schwarzenegger says he'll balance the budget; refuse tax increases; and cut waste, fraud, and abuse. While the voters of California have spoken, it'd be hard to find a more powerful endorsement of the tea party movement than the program advanced in "Stand for California."

So will the tea parties spark another nationwide tax revolt, a follow-up to California's historic Proposition 13 of 1978? Actually, that prospect is not far-fetched. Demands to restore limited government are growing. According to a recent poll on the 2010 Texas Republican primary:

Eighty-two percent (82%) of the likely primary voters have a favorable opinion of the tea parties held around Texas. Just 7% believe the economic stimulus plan has helped the economy while 61% believe it has hurt. They oppose the health care plan working its way through Congress by an 83% to 12% margin.

While that poll measures GOP primary voters, according to Rasmussen last April, "51% View Tea Parties Favorably, Political Class Strongly Disagrees."

We'll need to see more itemized polling questions in future surveys to know for sure, but it's clear that grassroots conservative activism is now a nationwide political movement. Organizers have smartly moved beyond the more wild antics of anti-socialist outrage to focus on specific issues -- such as the Democrats' disastrous ObamaCare -- to rally popular opinion around good government advocacy and common sense. No doubt citizen protesters will continue to be harassed and smeared as "teabaggers," but the heightening backlash to the movement is a sure sign that folks at the grassroots are having a genuine impact.