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Rudderless Tea Party Searches For Meaning Five Years On

Five years after storming the national political stage, the Tea Party finds itself in the same ideological doldrums that killed off the social movements of the '60s and '80s.

Posted on February 27, 2014, at 10:43 p.m. ET

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File

WASHINGTON — Several hundred die-hard Tea Party activists Thursday found themselves sandwiched between a much larger convention of chiropractors and the annual fly-in lobbying convention of the National Treasury Employees Union.

Held at a Washington Hyatt, the fifth anniversary event for the Tea Party Patriots was a far cry from the halcyon days of 2009 when tens of thousands of conservatives descended on Washington for a Tea Party rally.

Big names from the movement's birth like Rep. Michele Bachmann and Rep. Steve King — as well as three senators — shared the bill with obscure bloggers and businessmen hawking books, websites, even insurance brokerage services.

"I'm doing a film on the U.S. constitution. It's unlike anything you've ever seen. It's going to educate, it's going to entertain," one attendee told conservative radio icon Mark Levin in the hall outside the dimly lit event space.

But more than sheer numbers was missing from Thursday's event: The day lacked either a single leader or issue to rally around. While Obamacare may have birthed the movement, it no longer motivates the Tea Party, if Thursday's lineup was any evidence.

David Webb, a black conservative talk show host, urged the gathered activists to remake the movement in the image of Frederick Douglass. Bachmann used her off the cuff speech to hit everything from the rise of China to the budget. Bachmann, who will retire at the end of this year, even warned the movement to not "take your marbles and go home" simply because of their 2012 electoral defeat.

Rep. Steve King, one of the early adopters of the Tea Party mantle, took a more philosophical approach, arguing the movement is about securing the fundamentals of Western culture like "liberty" and "free markets."

"We are anchored in western civilization, which is what these things are anchored in," he told the activists to applause.

Rep. Raul Labrador played up his roots as Puerto Rican Mormon and his unlikely rise to power in Idaho. Only Sen. Ted Cruz spent much time talking about Obamacare, and even then it was woven into his largely standard stump speech about his "optimism" for the 2014 election.

There were divisions in the crowd, too. "I get so frustrated talking to the neocons, I need a fucking shot of Jameson," said attendee Dylan Stephenson, a libertarian, before ordering a shot and beer during the lunch break.

Levin and others insisted the movement isn't dying.

"I don't think it's a problem at all. I think the problem is with government. Congress has 13 percent approval, Obama's got 39 percent approval, the media generally … are plummeting. I think there is a bubbling up out there of the population disgusted with the ruling class and all of its cheerleaders," Levin told reporters.

"I can tell from my own show, from the callers and the responses we get, people are pretty fired up," Levin added. "The Tea Party has been subject to relentless attack from the ruling class. Democrats, Republicans, Harry Reid, Boehner, the media, so forth and so on. If they were so ineffective and impotent my guess is they'd be ignored."

Rep. Matt Salmon said, "I think the ideals that the Tea Party stand for are alive and well, and I feel that more and more Americans are starting to feel it. I've seen polling numbers nation-wide where large numbers, astoundingly large numbers, of people say 'I affiliate my ideology with the Tea Party.' So I think in the next election both in the House and the Senate you're going to see the Tea Party have a huge influence."

Indeed, the only thread that ran through the day was the idea that the Tea Party can still wield power in the next election. At one point a Tea Party Patriots official took the stage to announce the group had raised more than $1.1 million over the last 10 days, announcing, "Let's show those establishment people and the permanent political class we mean business and we don't need their money, 'cause we gots our own!"

"We have a real chance to take the gavel from [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid's hand this year," Bachmann said, warning conservatives to remain active.

Bachmann's calls for the gavel of Harry Reid got polite applause, but the biggest cheers — and the fact that Republicans should be most concerned about — was about Speaker John Boehner.

"Washington is threatened by what they cannot control. And Washington is threatened by freedom loving Americans … Isn't it high time we retired John Boehner's," Rep. Tim Huelskamp began to thunderous applause.

The crowd's standing ovation interrupted the rest of Huelskamp's sentence: "time we retired John Boehner's biggest excuse 'that we only control 1 half of 1/3 of the government.'"

Another message — this one from Sen. Rand Paul — was received much differently.

"There are times when people use language they shouldn't use," he said to a suddenly silent room.

"We can disagree with the president without calling him names … I don't call him names and I'm polite to him when I see him," he continued to activists wearing t-shirts and buttons that did just that.

CORRECTION: Rep. Tim Huelskamp was interrupted by a standing ovation when speaking about retiring an excuse given by Speaker John Boehner. An earlier version of this story did not include his full remark. (2/28/14)

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.