A Kinder, Gentler (Or At Least More Self-Aware) Tea Party Movement

The battle for health care reform brought out both the best and the worst in the tea party movement, according to activists. On the plus side, the conservative insurgency showed it could dominate the political dialogue and influence decision-making on both sides of the aisle. Activists say that shows tea partiers are becoming wiser and more seasoned politically.

But the health care debate also exposed rifts and deep vulnerabilities with in the tea party movement that could stop its path toward mainstream acceptance. Violent rhetoric and racial overtones in protests spilled over into actual death threats, property damage and the hurling of slurs. Whether or not the suspects in those incidents are actually tea partiers, movement leaders seem worried that they play into progressive arguments that the tea parties are just a new wrapping on right-wing extremism.

Now, with the movement’s annual Tax Day Tea Party approaching, tea parties are actively trying to show that the sterotypes aren’t true — one more aware of the limelight shining on it.For an example of the shifts in tea party rhetoric, a good place to start is Colorado. Rep. Betsy Markey (D) remains a prime tea party target after she switched her no vote on the House health reform bill to a yes on the final reform package. Tea partiers promise to boot her from office for the vote, and the rhetoric against her from the movement before the vote was as tough there as it has been anywhere else.

But after Markey received threats of violence from angry anti-reformers, tea partiers in the state rushed to condemn the attacks and distance themselves from what they would call fringe elements on the right.

“Although it does not appear that these threats stemmed from those within Colorado’s Tea Party movement,” Northern Colorado Tea Party leader Lesley Hollywood told KDVR-TV, “organizers and members alike are firmly denouncing any acts of intimidation or threat.”

Another tea partier told the station that her group was shifting is focus away from attacking Markey (and fellow tea party target, Democratic Rep. John Salazar), choosing instead to focus on political organizing.

“You will see that we are focused on being positive and productive,” 9.12 Colorado Coalition deader Lu Busse told KDVR. Busse said the 9.12 group is “is encouraging activists to say thank you to members of Congress who voted against health care reform” with donations rather than attack those who vote for it.

That kind of small-dollar political organizing is the stuff political influence is made of. And that’s the direction tea parties are headed in, according to local leaders. The way to get there, they say, is to cleanse themselves of the movement’s darker elements.

Rockford, IL tea party organizer David Hale, told the Chicago Tribune “he does not want to stifle the movement’s individual nature but’ would challenge participants who call [President] Obama a ‘Nazi’ or use any racial slurs.” (When asked by the Tribune what he thinks of Obama, Hale called him “a pure socialist and on the verge of communism.”)

Hale said he wants the movement to “stay raw.” Other tea partiers say that the only way to preserve the original goals of the movement is to make it clear that violence and extremism have no place in the tea parties.

After the first threats were reported against Democratic members of Congress after the health care vote, it wasn’t the Republican party that condemned them first (in fact, GOP leaders refused to). Instead the first opponents to the bill to distance themselves from the rhetoric were the Florida tea partiers.

Ft. Lauderdale, FL Tax Day Tea Party organizer Tim McClellan told me he’ll be the first to admit that there are “a few loose screws” in the movement, but said that as a local leader he’s paying trying his best to keep the few bad (in this case violently bad) apples from messing up the bunch. He said that tea partiers were concerned about being unfairly painted as a violent movement in the wake of the health care debate, and he said organizers like him are taking active steps to make sure that doesn’t happen.

“If I find any of them in the groups I’m involved in, I’ll pack them up in the first police car and ship them out,” McClellan told me. “There’s no room for it.”

He said that that violent anti-reform activists weren’t all from the tea parties, but he acknowledged that some were. He said that some of the rage was understandable, even though he condemned it.

“There’s a lot of pent up hostility,” McClellan said. “The tea parties have always been peaceful, until the health care bill got passed. That was a whole year before anything happened.”

McClellan said that tea partiers are a bit wiser this year than they were the last April 15, when, he said, most in the movement “had just gotten up off the couch” after the long election. Most were political neophytes then, he said. But now, with the 2010 elections looming, McClellan told me that the tea party movement was much “politically educated” and focused on getting things changed rather than just yelling about the status quo.

“They’ve learned quite a bit over the the past year,” he told me. He said that groups are shifting their attention to offering proactive solutions like fundraising and grass roots activism for the candidates they like (and, more specifically, going around the establishment GOP party organization, which McClellan said was trying to tell Republicans who to vote for.)

He said he expects more people to turn out at the April 15 protests around the country than ever before. Despite all the changes to rhetoric and self-awareness, McClellan said the core beliefs of the tea party haven’t changed.

“It’s a pretty simple concept,” he told me. “The people we elect to office should listen to us.”

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