It was 2010 all over again outside the Supreme Court last week.
Tea Party protesters flooded the steps as the justices heard arguments for and against President Obama’s health care overhaul, one of the key catalysts for the original incarnation of the Tea Party. For the first time in more than a year, the national media broadcast images of protesters that resembled those of two years ago: crowds of people carrying anti-Obama signs, wearing colonial outfits, and waving “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, repeating the combative anti-government rhetoric that sparked the birth of the movement. Reps. Michelle Bachmann and Steve King took the stage, and made the evening news.
The moment has prompted what Brendan Steinhauser, an official at FreedomWorks, the business-backed group that has helped promote the movement, “a reinvigoration.”
“The past week and a half re-invigorated the Tea Party,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.
The week of health care protests also, however, marked how far the Tea Party moment has receded, and some activists on the Supreme Court steps paused last week to look backward, with a twinge of nostalgia, to their glory days.
“I remember working on this from March ‘09 all the way through March 2010 — there is some nostalgia there,” said Steinhauser.
The past week “did feel like two years ago with the speeches and the people who were there and the signs," he said.
Tea Party figures say they have no plans, and perhaps little ability, to dominate the national conversation this summer as they did in 2010. What some call Tea Party 2.0 has become a more local, and lower-profile movement, effective at its best in Republican primaries ; splintered and disorganized at its worst. But the Supreme Court’s very consideration of the health care legislation owes something, many legal experts believe, to the popular backing the Tea Party provided to conservative views on the Constitutional role of the federal government.
The Obama administration’s healthcare plan is in many ways “an example of everything that we were fighting against,” said Martin: government intervention in a matter conservatives view as strictly personal, being required to pay for other people’s services, and President Obama himself.
“What galvanized this movement was health care. People engage when something is personal, and there's nothing more personal than health care,” said Amy Kremer, chairman of the Tea Party Express. “And here it is front and center at the Supreme Court. Of course people are energized and engaged because it's central to the movement to begin with.”
The central question for the Tea Party groups now is whether, as many believe, the movement’s moment has passed; or whether it can move successfully into a new phase. Activists say they’re focusing widespread frustration into policy change, and especially electoral change.
“We're not out having the big rallies with the big signs and stuff because that's not truly how you effect change,” said Kremer. “You effect change by lobbying your elected officials. But it's not sexy journalism to videotape someone sitting on their computer emailing their congressman.”
The frustration over what the Tea Party helped brand “ObamaCare” — and its constant presence in the news cycle last week because of the Supreme Court — could be one way for the Tea Party to truly make an impact this cycle. They haven’t been able to stop Mitt Romney’s rise, and many have become resigned to backing him, but they’re trying to use frustration over ObamaCare to get disgruntled conservatives to the polls in November in the hopes of taking back the Senate for Republicans and ousting Obama.
“Don't judge us by the number of people who turn out at our rallies, judge us by our impact on election day,” said Kremer.
“It's going to be a repeat of 2010,” said theteaparty.net national spokesman Kevin Jackson. “I've dared my buddies at Fox to prove me wrong. The Tea Party will not only influence the election, it will turn the election.”
None of this, though, is visible in the way that big protests and colorful costumes are, and the Tea Party’s image has always swayed between its truly grassroots elements and its support from large-scale political actors like the Koch brothers, with a dose of opportunistic politicos thrown in. As those difference have clarified, the Tea Party is now more like a group of similarly-named political action committees and advocacy groups with similar than a unified protest movement.
There’s “a little less interest in what we've been doing,” said Steinhauser. “Most of what we've been doing is quiet work. Running city council elections, getting involved in state legislative races.”
“A lot of that work's quiet, a little bit less sexy than rallies, but more important,” said Steinhauser.
With November approaching, activists say they’ll continue to focus on the kind of quiet local pushes they’ve focused on for the past year or so, instead of making last week’s relatively large-scale protests a regular part of the agenda.
“Obviously people are pumped up about this issue but we've been here all along,” said Kremer. “We've matured into Tea Party 2.0 where people are effecting change on a state and local level.”
Despite the pragmatic rhetoric, activists do admit to a nagging sense of ever more work to be done – and not enough accomplished, despite 2010 successes, suggesting that even the kind of electoral change Tea Partiers want won’t satisfy the movement’s desires.
“We had an incredible win in the House of Representatives in 2010, and then there really still hasn't been any change that we're looking for,” said Martin.