FALLS CHURCH, Virginia - Over pizza and hamburgers at the Mad Fox Brewery this week, activists of the Northern Virginia Tea Party movement discuss whether to vote for the Republican Party in the midterm elections next week.
"The two big parties are the two wings of the same bald eagle that is flying in the wrong direction," declares one participant, Stephen Shulin.
He continues with another metaphor from the animal kingdom: "Do you remember the frog getting cooked in a slowly heated pot? When is he going to jump out? Why do we need to maintain the status quo and the two-party system? This year there's an alternative - conservative candidates who are committed to the Constitution, who aren't coming from the Republican establishment. Are you expecting them to save us from what they helped create?"
The Tea Party movement, whose name is a reference to the Boston Tea Party of 1773, in which colonial citizens arose to oppose taxation imposed upon them by the crown, emerged within the Republican Party in the summer of 2009 to protest U.S. President Barack Obama's economic and social policies. It has gained momentum amid the campaigning for next week's congressional elections.
Michael Thompson, a Republican from northern Virginia, says, "The Tea Party is another conservative revolution. With President Ronald Reagan, we took back the Republican Party. Then too we had the same troubles - we don't have the luxury of waiting and skipping the elections. You have to vote for the candidate closest to your principles, because the alternative is scary."
At the end of the discussion, the participants vote, almost unanimously, to take part in the election and to give their support to Republican candidates.
The dozens of participants in the meeting include veteran Republican Party activists and elderly housewives who brought their knitting, as well as the author of a book on the history of the conservative movement. The latter's comments on Reagan's contributions to stopping the creeping danger of communism and rehabilitating the economy win enthusiastic applause.
The media coordinator of the local branch of the movement is a wedding planner, Daniel Cortez. Presiding over the gathering is James Renwick Manship, dressed up as George Washington. No one at the gathering thinks the costume looks strange and some mention in interview that they take pride in beloning to a state that gave rise to several presidents, including the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
The event begins with the Pledge of Allegiance, to the flag and the republic. After the final words, "with liberty and justice for all," the Catholic participants add, "for the born and the unborn." The participants have some differences of opinion, but a number of basic assumptions are taken for granted: The United States is going down the tubes, Barack Obama was born in Kenya and therefore is not entitled to be president, and it is people like them who must assume responsibility for stopping his administration's initiatives.
Another assumption: The media is hostile and takes statements by the movement's leaders out of context. A notable victim of this malice is Sarah Palin, whom the media want to prevent from running for president in 2012, they say.
Values versus fun
These days Democratic Party activists are working the phones nightly in a final effort to persuade supporters to come out to vote next week. Among the campaign events are a large rally set for Washington tomorrow, organized by humorists Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. The double-barrelled name for their demonstration is the "Rally to Restore Sanity" and the "March to Keep Fear Alive."
Tea Party activist Sandy Green, 67, says, "Jon Stewart is pretty funny, but this doesn't really threaten us."
Saturday's event is meant as a response to the "Restoring Honor" rally organized by Fox Network broadcaster Glenn Beck in August. However, Green says, "I doubt they will manage to bring the same number of people. I was at that rally. He talked about family, God and country - the positive values. Those two comics want to make fun, to speak hatred. Let them have their fun."
This is the first time Green has been politically active. She surprised even herself when she joined the Tea Party movement in the summer of 2009, she says.
"All my life I was a good girl," she says. "I wasn't a beatnik and I wasn't a flower child. I even supported the war in Vietnam because it never occurred to me our government could do anything wrong. But I've grown up, and now at 67, I've discovered that our administration can be corrupt. I was dormant but I have awakened."
The movement has no defined leadership and few internal disputes. Branches have been popping up in hundreds of American towns and cities. A sub-organization called the Tea Party Express, which has been organizing rallies around the nation in recent days, is accused of having been established to promote the man behind it, Sal Russo, a veteran political consultant who, as a onetime aide to the late president, has "the Reagan seal of approval."
For the most part, the Tea Party movement is a mirror image of the people who gave Obama his victory in 2008 - minority communities that hadn't been very involved politically and suddenly became enthusiastic grass-roots activists. The enthusiasm gap between the Democrats and the Republicans is still here in this round of elections, only this time it is in the Republicans' favor.
"Once a month we have a class on the Constitution. On Fridays we have 'Politics and Pizza,' a kind of conservative salon. We have to be informed if we are going to bring about change," says Green. "I've always described myself as an independent voter. I want a person with the right values, whom we can trust."
She does not believe Obama can be trusted.
"I wanted to believe he's a nice person. But I have a problem with his agenda and the rationale behind his decisions. And all the mystery surrounding his birth certificate - I didn't make a big deal of that until I saw a few films on YouTube, which made me realize he lied to us. His whole record is sealed and locked.
"During the presidential elections, several warning lights went on for me about Obama, and he has confirmed my worst fear, that he is an extreme leftist. And also the way he has treated Israel - I am Christian, but all my life I have supported Israel. We share a single fate and he apparently sees this differently. He is treating Israel like a naughty child that needs to be punished. What is this? You aren't playing marbles with me, so I'm angry at you?"
She finds inspiration in the women on the front line of the conservative movement, including Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell and Nikki Haley. (The latter three are running as Republican candidates for reelection to Congress from Minnesota, for senator for Delaware, and governor of South Carolina, respectively. )
"I'd vote for every one of them," she says. "The problem is that the media is left-wing and they are simply tearing every conservative to bits, especially women. They are calling them terrible names and it's very sad that many Americans are swept up by the things they hear in the media."
The movement's candidates have expressed consensus on economic issues ("Stop the waste" ) and values issues ("Stop the corruption in Congress and the behind the scenes deals" ), though there is disagreement on foreign policy issues. Many of the movement's supporters are evangelical Christians, so support for Israel is assured. If the Republicans win a majority in the House of Representatives and the Tea Party maintains its influence, this may pull the party to the right.
Green and her fellow Tea Partyers plan to remain active after the elections.
"We are going to stay there in order to remind the members of Congress that they owe the public a reckoning [that they are accountable], and in order to continue pushing for a better future," she says. "Control of the House is pretty much taken for granted. The Senate is in question. I hope Tea Party candidates will get into Congress and things will shift toward the conservatives. But I am definitely worried that people aren't awake enough in this country."
Participants in the meeting are given a handout comparing the incumbent Democrat in their district to the Republican candidate: their positions on the health-care law and taxes, the prison camp at Guantanamo, the question of gays serving openly in the military, a proposal prohibiting using federal funds for abortions and so on.
The event concludes with the announcement of the winners of a raffle for a bag and a shirt with embroidered slogans, followed by an emotional rendition of the national anthem.
"Remember," warns Cortez, "the media's depiction of us is biased. We have to focus on a positive message," he says, though he does not specify what that message is.
Eric Cantor's take on things
The only Jewish Republican congressman, Eric Cantor, of Virginia's 7th congressional district, is the party's No. 2 man in the U.S. House. He does not think the Tea Party movement has split the party or caused it damage. The movement, he says, is a reaction to the administration's unprecedented infringements on the free market and citizens' lives. He says it has infused a new spirit into the Republican Party's conservative elements. These elections, he says, are a return to governance by the people.
"We want a government that promotes economic freedom and empowers people to run their own lives," he says. "The Tea Party has been instrumental in delivering that message."
Are you not worried by the amounts of money being poured into the elections amid the economic troubles?
"I believe my home state of Virginia has a model that works well: All contributions to candidates for public office should be fully disclosed for the people to see," replies Cantor.
Although Republicans are still a minority among Jews, Cantor believes Obama is losing support within the American Jewish community due to disappointment with his economic policy.
"The administration vowed that if we spent $1 trillion on its stimulus, the unemployment rate wouldn't rise above 8 percent," says Cantor. "Today, official unemployment hovers around 9.6 percent, while millions of other Americans have either given up searching for a job or can find only part-time work."
He sees foreign policy as another problem: "Instead of focusing intently on stopping Iran's drive to obtain nuclear weapons, the White House has chosen to expend its energy on an elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that the Palestinian side does not want and simply cannot enforce. American Jews and other pro-Israel Americans sense that the administration has shifted the blame and the burden of peace onto the Israelis - and they don't feel comfortable with it."
So what is the first thing the Republicans will do if they win a majority in Congress?
"The first thing we will do is put a swift end to the job-killing policies that are injecting uncertainty into the job market," replies Cantor. "We will bring legislation to the floor ensuring that no American families or small businesses face a tax increase. We will enact forceful spending cuts to show that America is serious about reining in its debt. And we will work to repeal and replace the health-care bill. Our No. 1 priority is to do everything in our power to encourage our nation's job creators to put people back to work."
And, adds Cantor, "We will press the administration not to pressure Israel into making concessions that will compromise its already tenuous security situation."
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