FreedomWorks’ Long History Of Teabagging

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We haven’t written much about the Tea Party Movement, because it’s always seemed fairly blown out of proportion. Conservatives compare it to an anti-tax version of the Iraq war protests, but those protests drew scores of thousands of people into the streets and the “tea parties” that have occurred thus far haven’t been nearly that large.

But in recent days, a new angle on this story has emerged–one which casts some doubt on the degree to which these protests are in any way organic. Lee Fang of ThinkProgress and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have led the charge, calling the tea parties astroturf events–paid for and, perhaps, populated by, well-funded top-down organizations like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Jon Henke of the website The Next Right defended the tea parties from the charge, writing that “[w]hat FreedomWorks and various other organizations are doing is not “astroturf” any more than the anti-war protests of some years back were astroturf because ANSWER and Moveon.org helped organize people around those events.”

There are, of course, differences between MoveON and FreedomWorks. But his post nonetheless raises a couple interesting questions, such as: Who first proposed holding tea party events? When did major conservative organizations get involved? And how much support have they gained along the way?

The answer to the first question is “FreedomWorks.” The answer to the second question is “right from the start.” And the answer to the last question is “less than you’d expect, given the months of hype.”The first tea-partyish events occurred in February in Seattle, WA, Denver, CO, and Mesa, AZ around the time President Obama signed the stimulus bill into law, but they didn’t have an explicitly tea-based theme. If they had a theme of any kind it was “pork” and government waste. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin wrote a post about the Seattle protest called “From the Boston Tea Party to your neighborhood pork protest.” And in Denver, protesters shouted, “No more pork!” By and large, though, the events lacked a unifying issue.

That all changed on February 19, when CNBC commentator Rick Santelli erupted in anger on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, and proposed a “Chicago Tea Party” for traders to protest the government’s plan to provide mortgage assistance to distressed homeowners.

The idea took hold and on February 27, a handful of cities across the country hosted gatherings that involved genuine tea (or at least the use of the word “tea”). One of those tea parties occurred from 12:00 to 2:00 p.m. on Friday February 27, in Tampa, FL, organized according to the website Tampa Bay Online, by “John Hendricks, a Tampa-based consultant.”

John Hendricks turns out to be John Hendrix, who by phone earlier today described the events as completely spontaneous. “These are independent groups, not coordinated,” he says, “and most of the people, including myself, have never done anything like this.” He even said that two distinct groups in Tampa emerged simultaneously–both called the “Tampa Tea Party,” each unbeknown to the other.

I asked him where the idea came from. “Tom Gaithens,” Hendrix said. “He’s with FreedomWorks.”

“Oh really?”

“He sent an email out with his network of contacts to see who could help.”

The event, Hendrix said, drew somewhere in the ballpark of 200 protesters, and there were, by his count, 88 people on hand at peak. That’s not very many people. Henke may be right, in a sense, about the distinction between astroturf events and genuine protests–but this appears to be, at best, somewhere in between the two. There was certainly not enough burning furor about the stimulus bill or the bank bailouts in Tampa to drive residents into the streets without the help of Dick Armey’s 501 group.

An email to Gaithens, and a call to Brendan Steinhauser, also of FreedomWorks, were not immediately returned.

Over time, the Tea Party Protest Movement (or whatever you want to call it) has grown. There were larger tea parties in March, and if you’ve been watching Fox News, you know that tomorrow (tax day!) Tea Parties are scheduled to occur in cities across the country. That growth has been facilitated in part by such favored grassroots techniques as robocalls, which readers have been tipping us off to for nearly a week, and early estimates suggest that the largest of tomorrow’s parties will draw about 5,000 people

That’s more than 200–and certainly enough to look impressive on a television screen–but significantly smaller than the March 2003 Iraq war protests, which occurred in cities around the world, and resulted in thousands of arrests in the United States.

All of which raises a question nobody seems to be asking: What will the media say if FreedomWorks hosts a bunch of Tea Bag Parties and nobody comes?

Late update: Additional tax-day teabag coverage here and here.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM’s senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he’s led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

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