Right-Wingers' Big Day on Capitol Hill Proves to Be a Bust
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It was supposed to be day of great drama in our nation's capital. Right-wing activists promised a captivating protest taken from a left-wing playbook, with Tea Party activists acting out the part of dying patients in the halls of Senate office buildings. And one of their stalwart leaders was to address a luncheon at the National Press Club -- an event that would have heralded the arrival of the Tea Party movement into the mainstream. Neither event came off.
The Tea Party Patriots' Senate event promised to be strangely reminiscent of Code Pink's guerrilla-theater "die-ins." The Tea Partiers even named their event "Code Red." Alas, with limited enthusiasm for such artistic tactics among the anti-Obama crowd, the plug was pulled on the die-in, and the activists simply lobbied their senators.
Dick Armey, chairman of the lobbying group FreedomWorks, which has been instrumental in the ginning up of right-wing protests against health-care reform, planned to announce the formation of a new political action committee at a luncheon meeting at the National Press Club. But Armey's speech to reporters was canceled for apparent lack of interest, allowing him time to get to address a Capitol Hill rally staged by Americans for Prosperity that looked small compared to last month's protest on the eve of the House health-care vote.
The die-in was apparently dependent on the assemblage of some 1,000 protesters called for by TPP activist Mark Meckler -- too tall an order for a morning call during the holiday season. More than 1,000 activists would later assemble on Capitol Hill for a rally, thanks to buses supplied by Americans For Prosperity, the other major astroturfing group that organizes protests against health-care reform. (Participants did have to pay a fee to ride.)
Yet, even in its attenuated state, the Tea Party activists' day on Capitol Hill had its moments.
Next They'll Put a Chip in Your Brain
I found the protesters assembled at a park that adjoins the Senate office buildings, where a couple from Charlotte, North Carolina, led a group in a parody of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that included references to "welfare for all" and "loss of liberty." The singing was accompanied by the waiving of signs on which key lyrics were hand-lettered.
Jenny Beth Martin, the former Republican consultant who leads the Tea Party Patriots group, led 100 or so of her troops to the Senate buildings, where they split up to visit their particular senators. I stayed with Martin, who hails from Georgia, trailing her contingent to the office of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, a friend of the Tea Party movement. Along the way, I chatted with Nate, famous within the movement as a featured activist in "Tea Party: The Documentary," a film recently shown at a FreedomWorks event in Washington, D.C. Among Tea Party activists, Nate is one of a very few people of color. In fact, he was the only African-American in the Georgia contingent.
In the film, Nate confesses that he voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, a decision he now regrets. Obama, he said, promised to bring the troops home from Iraq, and not to have lobbyists in the White House -- both promises, Nate said, on which the president has reneged.
But really, Nate told me, his distrust of government goes back to the Bush years, and the passage of the USA Patriot Act, and the Real ID Act, which standardized identification requirements for state-issued drivers licenses, including a mandate that they include a machine-readable element, such as the radio frequency identification tags used in passports, known by the initials RFID. "That's what made me start paying attention to what was going on," he said, "because, being that I have Christian beliefs, Real ID Act, with the RFID tracking chip in it...was just one step closer to having the actual chip inside you."
How to Make a Red-Neck Cocktail
Upon our arrival at Isakson's office, a staffer led us to a nearby conference room -- there were more than 20 in the group -- where we were offered a course of refreshments: "Coca-Cola products and Georgia peanuts." (Coke is headquartered in Atlanta.) The senator was delayed at a meeting at the Capitol, and would be along shortly.
"That's the ingredients for a red-neck cocktail," said a woman seated at the conference table. "But it doesn't work with a can -- you need the Coca-Cola in the bottle. You just put the peanuts in the bottle, and the salt mixes in and it's real good. And that's what you call a red-neck cocktail."
Before Isakson's arrival, the door swung open, and in stepped William Temple, another star of the Tea Party movie, dressed in his customary Revolutionary War regalia. "Tea, anyone?" he asked. A copper kettle was tied to his belt.
Isakson received a warm welcome from the group, but that didn't stop him from getting a bit of a grilling, with a number of hand-held video cameras trained on him.
Jenny Beth Martin, another of the activists featured in "Tea Party: The Documentary," essentially told Isakson that her group was looking for a few good senators. "We want heroes; we want leaders," she said.
The activists displayed impatience with the Republican strategy of prolonging debate on health-care reform by offering amendments to the bill from the Senate floor. "We don't want amendments," one woman said. "We don't want a bill."
Isakson defended the strategy, calling it "brilliant," and crediting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for crafting it. "That's the only way we can do [this] -- make the other side show its hand," he said.
One woman in the group proved to be a bit of an outlier. "If this bill is killed, will there be some sort of reform made to health care so that we can afford it?" she asked. "I don't have health care."
Isakson launched into the standard GOP talking point of allowing people to purchase insurance policies across state lines.
William Temple piped up, asking, in the neo-British accent he uses while wearing his three-corner hat, if the senator thought it to be okay, since the health-care bill is unconstitutional, for people to disregard it. "You have the right, under the bill of rights, to freely assemble...," Isakson replied. "But I would never knowingly encourage anybody to break the law."
"But the Declaration [of Independence] says--" Temple tried to argue, before he was cut off by another questioner.
Isakson allowed, in response to another question, that he expected the mandate included in the bill, requiring all Americans to buy health insurance or face a tax penalty, to face a constitutional challenge.
"Reid Is Gone; Dodd's Goose Is Cooked"
Another constituent asked if Isakson thought that Congress was aware of "all the rage there is out there in the country," about the health-care bill.
Isakson said he thought they did -- and went on to imply that those who did not would get their just desserts at the ballot box. He mentioned, in particular, three Democratic senators who are up for re-election next year, including the Senate majority leader. " I am astounded beyond words that some of these people are going as far as they're going. I mean, Chris Dodd in Connecticut has cooked his goose; he's gone. Blanche Lincoln, I think, is gone. Harry Reid -- he's gone." The room erupted in applause.
With all the emphasis on the whims of Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who single-handedly forced the Medicare buy-in out of the Senate bill, and the problems posed by Ben Nelson, the conservative Democrat from Nebraska, who is threatening to scuttle the bill if the anti-abortion language in the Senate bill falls short of the draconian language in the House bill's Stupak amendment, other Democrats who have issues with the bill are escaping notice, Isakson said. He named Florida's Bill Nelson, who represents a state with a large elderly population unlikely to look kindly upon the proposed cuts to Medicare.
"But you know the guy who's a sleeper?" Isakson asked. "I could be wrong here, but I think it's Jim Webb of Virginia. He has voted on every Republican -- almost every Republican amendment he has voted for... And he's a tough bird. I mean, he's his own man, he marches to his own drummer, much like Lieberman. But he's more quiet than Lieberman. So you don't really know until he erupts which way he's going. But he does it the right more than the wrong way."
If the Democrats succeed in passing health-care reform legislation, Isakson said, Republicans would try to repeal it, he promised the activists, and he seemed to think their chances pretty good if the 2010 elections went the Republicans' way. The bill was brought up early in Obama's first term because of electoral considerations, Isakson said.
"The president knows good and well that if this thing started before he re-election [campaign], he wouldn't get re-elected," the senator said. "It is the most disingenuous thing you could think of. So now there is a four-year window in which there will be two national elections: 2010 and 2012. So...unwittingly, because they had to do it in order to keep it from affecting his election, they've given us the opportunity to repeal it before it ever goes through."
Armey Attacks Maddow; Lock and Load
As the meeting concluded, I sprinted to the subway so as not to miss Chairman Armey's speech at the National Press Club, only to find it canceled. A lot of reporters are on holiday, an aide to Armey explained to me later. Armey had planned to announce the formation of a FreedomWorks political action committee called the Take America Back PAC, which will back candidates that embody the FreedomWorks agenda, which is primarily anti-regulatory in nature. So far, the only primary challenger endorsed by FreedomWorks is Marco Rubio, who is running against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the Republican primary for an open Senate seat. But, said FreedomWorks press secretary Adam Brandon, the PAC will likely back candidates in the general elections for Senate seats in Nevada and Connecticut.
I arrived back on Capitol Hill just in time to miss Armey's speech to the rally. The event was labeled "Code Red," and many of the participants wore red clothing. Armey used his speech as a platform to attack Rachel Maddow, getting her name wrong. He called her "Maddox," and claimed that she had "a PhD in something that doesn't matter." (That something is political science.) This was all by way of introducing to the assembled Tea Partiers Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., a physician and member of the right-wing religious group, The Family, who has been a stalwart obstructor of health-care reform. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., also a member of The Family, also addressed the crowd. DeMint is fashioning himself as something of a right-wing kingmaker with his own PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund.
I arrived in time to hear Isakson wrap up his speech, and listen to Tea Party Patriot Mark Meckler complain that Sen. Lieberman's staffer threatened to have Meckler arrested.
Michele Bachmann stopped by to introduce keynote speaker Laura Ingraham, the right-wing radio host, as "drop-dead gorgeous."
I stood among the crowd as Ingraham asked rhetorically, "I wonder what the Founding Fathers would do if they saw this bill?"
The crowd around me had a suggestion. "Shoot them," one man yelled. "Lock and load!" screamed another.
Even Ghouls Are Constitutionally Protected
After the rally, participants lined up outside Capitol Hill office buildings for still more meetings with senators. Outside the Russell building, a man dressed in a grim reaper outfit, his face entirely covered, stood cracking a bullwhip at the feet of three companions who respectively wore masks depicting Obama, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Their clothes were spattered with fake blood and they wore costume versions of neck-irons and chains. The man in the grim reaper outfit was playing the part of the devil; he had condemned the three to Hell for their role in keeping abortion legal. "Speaker Pelosi is wearing Chanel No. 666," the man said in an affected accent. I knew by the voice that it was Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry.
I stopped to take a picture. "Don't take his picture," a woman with the Tea Party group said. "He's not with us."
With that, the man wearing the Harry Reid mask lifted it and said quite earnestly, "But I am a Tea Party person."
The woman engaged the Capitol Police, who explained to her that Randall Terry was exercising his constitutional rights. And a constitutional lesson was had by all.