Tea Party Uses Obama Organizing Playbook

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Members of the Tea Party movement protest outside the Fairmont Hotel before President Obama arrives for a fundraiser May 25, 2010

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On Primary Day on The Leonard Lopate Show, guest host Miles O’Brien talked to New York Times National Correspondent Kate Zernike about the Tea Party’s origins and influence. Her new book Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America is the first account of the people who makes up the Tea Party—where they came from and what they stand for.

Zernike pointed out that the Tea Party is largely misunderstood and has been dismissed, but that they're taking tips from the Obama campaign and the grassroots organizing of MoveOn to attract support and attention:

What's really important to note about the Tea Party is that everyone is focused on the rallies, everyone's focused on the crazy signs and the crazy rants by Rick Santelli, but what starts happening is they really start organizing, and they start thinking about how they're going to take over the Republican Party and move it to the right. And what they're really doing is they're looking at the liberals' playbook, and they're looking at how Obama won in 2008, and they're saying 'we need to do that.' We don't like what the left does, but we need to learn from it and we need to do those same things.

Although the Tea Party has been viewed by some as a manufactured grassroots movement with racist underpinnings, Zernike believes that focusing on those issues is missing the point of the Tea Party.

Whether or not you agree with the Tea Party, you need to understand it. And the thing you need to understand is how they're getting out there and getting people to the polls. You need to understand what they believe and what they might do as candidates, because we're going to have some Tea Party Senators come November.

 Although there are elements of the Tea Party that believe the false notions that President Obama isn't an American citizen or that he is a Muslim, Zernike says that the majority of the Tea Party organizers she met while reporting her book don't perpetuate those beliefs.

"There are certainly people within the movement who do that. I was at a rally this weekend and there was a saying, above a picture of Barack Obama there was a sign saying "Undocumented Worker," so obviously it's there. But again, for the most part, the people that you meet when you go beyond these rallies, when you go on a Sunday afternoon to some organizing meeting in Pennsylvania or Kentucky or Arizona or wherever you are, they don't tend to be birthers. They tend to be people who really feel that in fact the Republican Party has abandoned them. They're not so much concerned with the Democrats. They feel that the Republican Party has abandoned them, and they want to move it to the right, and they want to make it more fiscally conservative, and so they're not so much concerned with President Obama's birth certificate, and in fact, they often think that that demeans their movement to focus so much on those questions."

Zernike says it’s also a mistake to believe that the conservatives who make up the Tea Party are the same kind of social conservatives we've seen influencing politics:

One big mistake that people make about the Tea Party is assuming that they're the same old Christian conservatives, and they want to talk about gay marriage, they want to talk about abortion, and they're very conservative in those ways. In fact, they don't want to talk about those issues. They think that the Republican Party has focused way too much on those issues....They want to talk about smaller government, lower spending, et cetera.

The Tea Party holds a lot of contradictions. It was sparked by the economic meltdown and resulting recession of the last two years, and at the heart of the movement is the desire to reduce the size and role of the government and to lower taxes. While the movement was started by a young, idealistic conservative named Keli Carender, it has attracted a wide variety of frustrated voters with different ideologies. Some members even speak out against the government while relying on government programs like Medicare and Social Security:

They were really swelled by older people, people who tend to be older than 65, who were really just freaked about the economy and worried about their savings going away and they were underwater in their homes or just looking at their 401Ks that have been severely depleted. And they're more motivated by fear. And their ideology was much more evolving. And so you'd talk to them and often if they were on Medicare and Social Security, you got the sense that they didn't understand that those were government programs.

The economic recession and high unemployment rate has created a perfect storm for the Tea Party to gain supporters and challenge Republicans they see as not conservative enough. They’ve been able to win against some strong Republicans in Alaska, Delaware, and in New York in the primaries. Zernike said the Republican Party has felt pressure, but that doesn't mean Democrats will necessarily be safe.

In the primaries the Republicans have really been the nervous ones, because they're the ones who the Tea Party has gone after. But today is really a pivot point for the Tea Party, because now that the primaries are done, they're training all this energy and all this organization on the Democrats. They are pragmatic. They know that they need to get rid of the Democratic leadership in the Congress if they want to be effective, and that's what they're after.


Listen to the entire interview on The Leonard Lopate Show.