It was a gray, drizzly day in Morristown, New Jersey, but that didn’t keep some 300 demonstrators – young and old, placard wielding and politically unarmed – from turning out to the city’s downtown green to take part in what has rapidly become a national phenomenon: the Tea Party protest.
For the uninitiated, that’s T.E.A., as in “taxed enough already,” the mantra of a growing grassroots movement outraged over the federal government’s $787 billion economic stimulus package; the bailouts for companies and institutions deemed “too big to fail;” the spiraling debt and the slumping economy; and, of course, the all-seasons irritant that is felt most acutely this time of year: high taxes.
Popular for several months now, the Tea Parties had their largest showing yesterday, the deadline to file tax returns, with thousands of people demonstrating in over 300 cities in all 50 states, including President Obama’s former residences of Hawaii and Illinois. And while the tea parties generally have had a politically conservative flavor, discontent with massive government spending has taken root even in such traditionally liberal environs as San Francisco, Portland, and New York City, which hosted their own Tea Parties.
Morristown’s Tea Party, one of at least seven being held on the day in New Jersey, was typical of similar events nationwide. Most prominently, there were the signs. “Stimulate Business, Not Government” read one. Another, riffing on President Obama’s campaign slogan, asked, “Can we bankrupt the country? Yes we can.” Demonstrator Don Tanella carried a poster with photos of President Obama, as well as Congressional leaders, underlined with the message, “These are the real pirates!” One woman even outfitted her Golden Retriever with a sign. “Take a bite out of spending!” it read.
Not to be outdone, others waved the Revolutionary-era Gadsden flag, appropriate not only because Tea Parties are intended to evoke the original Boston Tea Party revolt of 1773, but also because the Morristown green was the location where George Washington and his Continental Army wintered during the Revolutionary War. Still others carried the tea bags that have become the Tea Parties’ unofficial symbol.
Then there were the “partiers.” Yuna Leary, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the former Soviet Union, showed her dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the economy with her sign: “I could’ve stayed in the U.S.S.R if I knew it would come to this.” Her husband Dennis Leary, a software developer, was more specific. Asked why he came out to the Tea Party, he cited his concerns about everything from the revival of the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” to silence talk radio, to the Obama administration’s stand on gun rights, to the supercharged federal spending. “I could go on all day,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one. Jennifer Klein, a computer graphics specialist from neighboring East Hannover, New Jersey, said that while she was troubled by the economic recession, she believed the federal government’s response, in particular its lavish spending amid an already swelling trillion-dollar US budget deficit, had made things significantly worse. “We’ve taken a huge hit on our daughter’s investment portfolio,” Klein explained. “She’s not even 3, and she’s already loosing money.” Klein wasn’t sure whether the Tea Parties would change the country’s direction, but she was convinced that they were a good start. “Unless people start speaking out, nothing is going to change,” she said.
Where there are prospective voters, there are politicians, and the Morristown Tea Party was no exception. New Jersey is one of the highest-taxed states in the country, according to the Tax Foundation, and records the highest property taxes, a fact that did not go unnoticed by former U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie and former Bogota, New Jersey, mayor Steve Lonegan, the two Republican candidates vying for the party’s nomination to unseat Democratic Governor Jon Corzine in this fall’s election. “Are you overtaxed?” asked Christie, and was answered by a booming “Yes,” from the audience. “I think you’re overtaxed, too,” Christie said. Lonegan, a fiery figure who has cast himself as an unapologetic fiscal conservative, was more animated. Asked what he would do if elected governor, he declared, “How about freeze the size of government and take back the country?” A raucous applause suggested that, at least among the gathered crowd, the proposal enjoyed widespread support.
Like many of its kind across the country, the Morristown Tea Party was largely an ad hoc affair. Debbie Whittmore, one of the organizers, said that the idea for the event emerged only a few weeks earlier. Still, it drew people from all around the state, generally considered a Democratic stronghold, who braved the grim weather for a chance to have their say. “It’s a testament to all the people who pitched in and did what they could to bring this together,” Whittmore said.
It is a testament, too, the popularity of the Tea Party movement. From the occasional odd demonstration, it has become something of a small-scale national rebellion, driven less by partisanship than by a sense of frustration at the federal government’s spend-thrift ways. True, the Obama administration has not yet acknowledged the Tea Parties directly. But it cannot be entirely coincidental that the president himself was moved to defend his tax policies yesterday, and to stress, in an unspoken recognition of the tea-toting demonstrators beyond the White House gate, that he was trying to live up to his “responsibility to the people who sent us here and who pay the bills.” Disinclined though it may be to admit the fact, the administration clearly has read the political tea leaves.
There is no small irony in the fact that much of the Tea Parties’ ire is directed at President Obama. After all, it was his presidential campaign that inspired the idea that a “grassroots movement,” led by a former community organizer, could become a potent force in American politics. In ways the administration may soon find inconvenient, the Tea Party movement has taken the message to heart.