The participants seemed surprised, too. The front of the Capitol dome hadn’t seen this kind of turnout since the Michigan Education Association’s teacher rally in 2005.
Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher was speaking, sure. But over 5,000 people? Many of whom carrying signs sporting such antigovernment messages as "Wake Up America - Stop The Insanity," "B.O. (Barack Obama) Stinks," "Not Change I Can Believe In?" Weren’t these the fringe whackos who push nonsensical pamphlets on street corners?
No, they were frustrated Michigan citizens, tired of the government bailouts of ethically questionable Wall Street while they slid deeper and deeper into a recession. Tired of watching President Obama punch the accelerator through his stimulus package on a now $12 trillion budget deficit, much of which is owed to China and Japan.
These weren’t 1773 colonists throwing crates of tea into Boston Harbor, but they were throwing tea bags at the Capitol steps to prove a point: Government is out of control. It needs to stop.
"This wasn’t the Chai tea party of the 2008 election that swept Obama into office," said political consultant Matt Resch. "This is a group of people who had been involved, but this issue struck a chord with them. All of this spending in Washington had energized them."
The Tea Party in Michigan was alive. What had been cast aside as a minimal spattering of discontents put together something substantial. Over the summer, they crammed health care reform town halls. This month, 500 of them stood in sub-freezing temperatures to protest Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s State of the State.
They’re not going away either. Will the momentum last into 2010 elections? If so, political observers see their impact as being significant.
By popular accounts, the "tea party" movement was born a year ago, on Feb. 19, with CNBC financial reporter Rick Santelli’s infamous "rant of the year" on CNBC’s Squawk Box.
Amid a pool of financial traders at the Chicago Board of Trade, the veteran analyst unloaded a two-minute rant on the ridiculousness of the federal government bailing out the "bad behavior" of "losers" who are defaulting on mortgages they shouldn’t have been given in the first place.
Shouts, whistles and applause filled the background as Santelli turned and asked traders, "How many people want to pay their neighbor’s mortgage, who has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?"
He then bellowed, "We’re thinking about having a Chicago tea party in July. All of you capitalists who want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing."
The instant Youtube classic ran up more than 1 million views. It struck to the heart of a bubbling feeling nationwide that big dollar government bailouts were akin to "fiscal insanity."
Maybe the federal government shouldn’t be floating billions in taxpayer money to banks, insurance companies or auto companies who make dumb business decisions. Shouldn’t America just let them go out of business? Does it make sense to give back taxpayers $8 or $10 to promote fiscal discipline? Does anyone think we’re all going to save it?
Groups like Americans for Prosperity and Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, which used to draw a couple dozen to their gatherings, were drawing 100 and more. And events like their April 15 Tax Day protests went from a few dozen protesters to a national news story.
"It became the rant heard around the world," said Leon Drolet, the former legislator who is director of the taxpayers alliance. "It really galvanized the national attention."
For Scott Hagerstrom, director of the Michigan chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the surge in interest was startling. In the past year, Hagerstrom has spoken at 75 to 80 local engagements from Southwest Michigan to western Wayne County to the tri-cities area. Where he once was lucky to see a couple of dozen stragglers at these events, he’s now seeing up to 200 people crowd into a room.
Obama unknowingly fanned the flames when he pushed into a headwind of vocal opposition to his national health care reform. It gave credence to the belief that Obama’s policies were "the biggest expansions of government seen since Lyndon Johnson and FDR," political consultant Joe Munem said.
"What made this stylish?" Munem said. "Two words: Barack Obama. The whole notion that government can take you out of economic turmoil just made a lot of people uncomfortable."
Roughly 40 to 65 local Tea Party groups formed across the state. Hagerstrom saw Americans for Prosperity membership quadruple from 7,000 to 30,000. Nationwide, the number is 980,000. By December, a Rasmussen Reports survey of 1,000 people nationwide found that 23 percent would vote for a non-existent Tea Party congressional candidate in 2010, five percentage points better than the 18 percent who said they’d vote for a Republican candidate. Democrats candidates were favored by 36 percent of the population.
Suddenly, the free market/economic liberty tune that Hagerstrom’s been humming since his youth was politically in vogue.
"I keep telling these groups to remember what we feel right now," Hagerstrom said. "Because 10 years from now we’re going to look back and we’ll have hoped that we kept this going."
Who is the face of this Tea Party movement? It’s not a cable news or talk show personality, like a Rush Limbaugh. Sarah Palin speaks the language in her simple, homespun way, but she doesn’t speak for the Tea Party.
Joe the Plumber? His public visibility has been inconsistent.
Former presidential candidate Ron Paul won 31 percent from last week’s national Conservative Political Action Committee straw poll of 2,395 registrants, nine percentage points better than last year’s winner — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — and 24 points higher than thirdplace Palin. But Paul’s fringe views on the Iraq War, among other things, make him a polarizing figure.
No, the consensus is there is no consensus.
EachTea Party faction takes its own unique slant. Some wrap Second Amendment issues into their message. Others use the Tea Party to promote the "Fair Tax" — the high sales tax, no income tax proposal. Still others bake in some social issues. There are the antiimmigration types and those who honestly believe Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud, a group known as "Birthers."
For younger activists, the Tea Party’s attraction, Drolet said, is a libertarian message of universal freedoms across the board. Alexander McCobin spoke for the budding "Students for Liberty" organization at last week’s CPAC conference about the good judgment the American Conservative Union showed in letting Go Pride co-sponsor the event.
"Students today recognize that freedom does not come in pieces, it’s a single concept that we must defend at all times," he said.
There’s no centralized organization, either. While one national group or another may put together an event, no one speaks for local Tea Party groups nationwide. It’s impossible. They don’t speak with one voice.
They are a loose federation of conservatives of all types who rally behind the general idea that federal government spending is out of control, Drolet said.
That isn’t stopping politicians from trying to tap into the movement.
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s stunning victory in Massachusetts sent the signal that the Tea Party movement is, at the very least, one to be exploited. Locally, both Tim Walberg and Brian Rooney are trying to harness the Tea Party energy to advance in the Republican primary against 7th Congressional District Rep. Mark Schauer.
Eight-term U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, opted to retire as opposed to fighting a primary with state Rep. Justin Amash, who has Tea Party principles embedded into his DNA. The 29-year-old is a favorite to replace Ehlers in Congress, despite having served only one term in the state House.
State Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, one of five Republican congressional candidates in the West Michigan 2nd Congressional District, sponsored a resolution this month that asks Washington to let Michigan opt out of any federal health care system.
In the 9th Congressional District, former state Rep. Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski is being accused of pandering to the Tea Party activists. Examples of state Senate and state representative candidates tapping into the Tea Party energy, be it for political convenience or not, are sprinkled throughout Michigan’s landscape.
Whether the standard bearer is a "truebeliever" or Johnny-come-lately makes no difference to Drolet.
"Have them pander away," Drolet said. "A lot of times, politicians are followers. They follow where they need to go if that’s the pervasive opinion among the public. That’s O.K. We welcome the bandwagon-jumpers . . . as long as they’re voting the right way."
Citizens’ distrust of government rises and falls with the economy, says George Sides, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Yes, Tea Partiers share an explicit distaste for government, but it’s the economy’s poor condition that is giving the sentiment "fertile grounds" for the "constellation" of ideologies within the movement. The political diversity, Sides said, could also be its downfall.
To have any sort of real influence over politics, Tea Party-types must become a more organized group with a focused message, he said. This movement doesn’t have one.
The likelihood that any so-called Tea Party could rise up and start putting forth candidates for elective office anytime soon is slim, he said. Drolet, himself a candidate for a Macomb Countybased state Senate seat, said simply that he "could not win" under a "Tea Party" banner in November. About 25 percent of voters cast straight Republican or Democrat tickets, he said, meaning he’d start with a huge disadvantage.
Using the Tea Party message to win a Republican primary, however, is a different matter.
That’s if the shelf life of a "Tea Party" holds.
Mike Murray of Okemos-based Murray Communications, a political consulting firm handling mostly Republican clients, said Tea Party-like "third way" movements tend to have a limited lifespan. Ross Perot and his Reform Party emerged in 1992, reached its zenith with the election of Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1998 and fizzled out by 2000.
Even the Rasmussen poll results are questionable since the mere inclusion of a "Tea Party" choice begs it as an answer from "people who would almost certainly never actually pull the Tea Party lever once in the voting booth," Murray said.
Still, the poll should raise eyebrows among Republicans. We could see primary candidates pushed farther to the right in primaries, only to then be less appealing to voters in the General Election, assuming the Michigan economy doesn’t vastly improve under Obama’s policies.
Otherwise, the Tea Party’s strength will be in high-candidate, low-voter turnout primary elections in traditional Republican areas. A Tea Party candidate could stand out as an "outsized" voice and be successful as the strong right candidate.
This scenario played out in the New York congressional special election, where the activists lined up behind a conservative ’Tea Party’ candidate, but lost the historically Republican seat in the general election, Murray said. It’s also playing out in Marco Rubio’s fight with Gov. Charlie Crist for a U.S. Senate seat in Florida.
"I don’t want it to sound like I’m down on the Tea Party folks," Murray said. "I’m not. They’ve brought much needed passion and energy to the political process. The problem is that the Tea Party movement has no system in place to separate its members’ good ideas (fiscal responsibility, support for free enterprise, etc.) from its kooky ideas (elimination of the Federal Reserve, ’911 Truthers,’ Birthers, etc.)."
Sides said he sees marginal districts where there’s neither a strong Republican nor Democrat incumbent as a target for Tea Party activity.
"Even though their complexion looks quite unusual, given the sort of wide variety The April 15, 2009, Michigan Taxpayer Tea Party, which Americans For Prosperity-Michigan sponsored and was the lead organizer for, had a large showing of about 5,500 frustrated Michigan citizens.
of ideas that are circulating, all their ideas travel under the heading of contemporary American conservatism," Sides said.
The danger for Republicans is to assume that Tea Party activists will vote with them in 2010, said Rob Macomber, a Republican campaign consultant with the Sterling Corp. in Lansing.
Tea Party activists are not default Republicans. They are principles-driven people, who are mad that Republicans didn’t walk the fiscal conservative walk in Washington and Lansing when they were given total power.
"In 2006 and 2008, not to take any impact away from the Democratic ’tsunami,’ much of the GOP’s rejection at the ballot box came from this group of voters who had yet to be labeled as the Tea Party," Macomber said.
Democratic candidates, like Republican candidates, can appeal to these voters as long as they are against all that the Tea Party folks are against — big government solutions, higher taxes and out-of-control spending.
"In 2006 and 2008, that was George W. Bush and the Republican Congress, and in 2010, it’s going to be Barack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Jennifer Granholm," Macomber said. "The Democrats have to quickly find a new brand to sell because they’re running low on ’change.’ And the GOP can’t simply afford to sit back and watch."
Could this group of political dissidents really wield so much power?
Political observers say "yes." It could be a mobilizer for political causes such as groups like the National Rifle Association, labor unions, or the Christian Right, which mobilized to elect George W. Bush. While their numbers are comparatively small, they are excited and active, which makes them valuable volunteers to knock doors, make calls and stuff envelopes for Tea Party friendly candidates.
And their activity is visible. They’re on the talk shows, in the news, the blogs, Facebook. The Internet is how they communicate. Every day, they can reach the average fiscally conservative voter who may be passively watching their activity and saying "You betcha!"
In end, Munem said, he sees this fragmented movement breaking apart when individual segments, like the Fair Tax, get agitated that their headline issue isn’t getting widespread support from the rest of the group.
Eventually, he said, "everyone runs home to mama." The question is when it will happen and if it will be before Nov. 2, 2010. Who knows? Maybe Obama’s policies will better the economy and defuse the Tea Party’s spark. Eight months, in politics, is still a long way away.
"It’s like when you start dating someone," Munem said. "It’s all great in the beginning. Flowers, romance. After a while, some of that excitement wears off and you start looking a little harder at the person you’re with. Whether it’s a long-term relationship remains to be seen."