What went right and what didn't during the health care fight.
By Ambreen Ali
The tea partyers who waited anxiously outside the Capitol until House Democrats
passed the health care bill late Sunday night were back at work before lawmakers
woke up the next day.
Mark Meckler of Tea Party Patriots, the largest coalition in the movement,
was already in California meeting fellow activists Monday morning. In Georgia,
his colleague William Temple was making calls to Congressional offices.
Since last spring, their grassroots conservative movement has grown alongside
and in reaction to the health care debate. Now, with Democrats putting the finishing
touches on the bill, the activists are trying to draw lessons from their first big legislative
fight and plan for the next.
We asked tea partyers and those who study them what they have learned:
You don't always win.
Even the best grassroots campaign can't guarantee results. Some activists believe
the health care bill would have passed no matter what, but that the tea parties
succeeded by drawing out the debate.
"We almost destroyed it," Temple said of the bill. He credited the town hall
disruptions, national rallies, and Republican Sen. Scott Brown's victory with slowing
down the Democrats' legislative agenda.
Brown's victory in Massachusetts special election in January cost Democrats
their Senate supermajority and dampened the momentum around health care.
Don't give up.
The morning after health care passed, Temple was busy making calls to the
offices of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) to express disappointment for the
lawmaker's yes vote.
"Let’s not be reactive, let's keep our agenda," he said.
Tea party leaders around the country had the same hopeful tone.
Some like Julianne Thompson of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots are backing
state initiatives to temper the national health plan and campaigning for conservative
candidates ahead of midterm elections.
"I believe 1994 will be a mere shadow compared to what is going to happen in
November of this year at the ballot box," she said, referring to the midterm elections
when Republicans regained control of the House after four decades.
Be part of the process.
In the weeks preceding the final House vote on health care, some tea partyers
switched from picketing outside the Capitol to meeting with those inside.
Thompson said Members paid more attention to the activists willing
to sit down with them.
"It's easy for them to look outside and see a rally going on and go back
into their office and ignore it," she said. "When you have a line of 50
people waiting in your office, that's something you can't ignore."
Mark Williams of Tea Party Express in California said his group is focused on
"infiltrating the political party infrastructure." He encourages tea party
members to run for local offices and positions within the political party committees.
He is heading to Nevada this weekend, where he will introduce former Alaska
governor Sarah Palin at a kickoff event for a 40-day bus tour to Washington, D.C.
"We have to take over from the grassroots up," he said.
Many tea party leaders are setting their eyes on the November election,
when they hope to punish the lawmakers who passed the health bill.
"Elections have consequences. We're where we are at today
because of the last election," Meckler said.
Dominate the debate.
The hundreds of tea party activists who picketed outside Capitol Hill
in the final week of the debate may not have swayed enough lawmakers
against the bill, but they drew attention.
"[The protest] paints a stark picture in the mind of the American public
that you have a Congress that's completely out of touch with the people,"
That was the idea behind an early tea party success: the town hall disruptions.
Conservatives showed up to local meetings with protest signs and angrily shouted
at the lawmakers who were laying out the health plan.
Instead of talking about the bill's details, people focused on the protesters.
"The tea party people were able to shout down what was being said about
the health care plan," said David S. Meyer, a University of California at Irvine
professor who studies protest movements.
Control your own.
Since there is no official tea party group, pretty much anyone can start a local
tea party or show up to a rally. That has been both a boon for the movement
and its Achilles' heel.
Leaders were put on the defensive when a handful of activists shouted racist
and homophobic epithets at Democratic lawmakers last week.
"We all have an obligation to distance ourselves from any kind of racism or bigotry," Meckler said. He added that his group, the Tea Party Patriots, has zero tolerance
for such behavior.
"If someone like that shows up to our rallies, they are unceremoniously removed,"
he said. Meckler noted that not all tea party groups have that policy.
Use resources wisely.
Not every activist can afford to leave their jobs and come to Washington, D.C.,
to lobby. Nor should they.
Modern technology has played an instrumental role in propelling the tea party
Whether it is Facebook groups, the Tea Party Nation social network,
or the many e-mail lists the groups use to coordinate their efforts,
activists have found that they can do a lot from home.
Temple said he encouraged fellow activists in Georgia not to go to
Washington, D.C., this past week.
"Rather than tiring out our own people and spending all our money,
we've got the Internet. We've got phones," he said.
Ambreen Ali writes for Congress.org.