What a difference a year makes.
Just one year ago, Republicans were reeling from President Barack Obama's historic inauguration. Pundits widely predicted a political realignment that would vanquish conservatives from the halls of power for a generation.
Tea party groups will mark their one-year anniversary with a variety of events around the nation Saturday. But unwittingly, Obama and his Democratic colleagues may well have helped them commemorate the anniversary already, by holding this week's high-profile healthcare summit.
After all, most pundits agree that the last-ditch effort to save Obamacare probably wouldn't have been necessary, if it weren't for the heated town hall protests over the summer that wrecked the Democratic supermajority Obama was banking on.
"The only reason the healthcare takeover that Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid planned for the country did not take place is because of the town hall protests," Michael Patrick Leahy, the founder of the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, tells Newsmax.
"This healthcare thing would have been in the bag by now for him," says former Majority Leader Dick Armey, the FreedomWorks leader that has played a key role in the tea parties' development. "He'd be sitting pretty by now."
History may show the beginning of the end of Obamamania came Feb. 27, 2009.
On that day, conservative, libertarian and independent activists around the country rose up in protest against what they saw as a big-government, healthcare-driven takeover that endangered the very fabric of American liberty.
"Fire Congress," one sign read at the Chicago rally, just one of 52 such events held that day in cities large and small across the nation.
"Bailout," declared another, "Chains you can believe in." Hundreds of protesters streamed across the Michigan Avenue bridge.
The protests that day were a mere blip in the TV monitors of a national media still basking in the afterglow of a new, untested president's inauguration. But those events set the stage for much larger protests to follow, which followed the same pattern: grass-roots organizing via the Internet, sign-waving, finger-pointing, clashes with the mainstream media, and televised pleas to rescue the nation from a government takeover.
Those early protests were so spontaneous that just eight days before, the political uprising didn't even have a name.
That all changed Feb. 19, when a CNBC correspondent took to the floor of the Chicago Commodities Exchange and vented his frustration with Democratic proposals to bail out people who had signed up for mortgages they couldn't afford.
His name was Rick Santelli, and his monologue was the rant heard 'round the world.
"How about this, president and new administration," Santelli demanded on CNBC's “Squawk Box” program, "Why don't you put up a Web site to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages, or would we like to, at least, buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people who might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water, instead of drink the water?"
Egged on by cheers from the traders working behind him, Santelli then uttered the words that continue to reverberate across the political landscape.
"We're thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July," Santelli said. "All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I'm going to start organizing."
With those words, a political movement was christened. Santelli's tea party rant went viral, and grass-roots groups throughout the hinterland began planning a series of tea parties to protest out-of-control government spending and a perceived expansion of federal power.
The first protests that occurred were only the beginning of a political avalanche.
Each new ambitious item on the president's agenda set more of the grass-roots movement ablaze, including: disenchantment with the $787 billion stimulus plan, steadily rising unemployment and news that the administration planned to require that everyone purchase health insurance and would offer them a government-run public-option plan.
As preparations began for a massive tax day march on Washington for April 15, Democrats and their media allies tried the old Saul Alinsky stratagem: destroy your opponent with ridicule.
MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow and David Schuster, for example, introduced the "tea bagger" obscenity in mid-April. CNN's Anderson Cooper also used the slang reference to a sexual act on April 14.
After commentator David Gergen remarked that Republicans were "still searching for their voice," Cooper remarked: "It's hard to talk when you're tea bagging."
Cooper later apologized, stating "if people took offense to that and felt that I was disparaging their legitimate right to protest … because I don't believe in doing that."
By then, however, the damage had been done – not to the tea party movement, which appeared to gain strength with every effort made to denigrate it – but rather to the well-orchestrated campaign to keep the conservative grass-roots movement from fully emerging onto the political scene.
D.C. crowds that to the eye appeared to number in the hundreds of thousands were said to amount to just 60,000 to 70,000 people. That estimate was attributed to parks and recreation officials, who later insisted their policy is to never estimate the size of D.C. crowds. And somehow the cameras always found the few racially charged anti-Obama signs in the crowd, and portrayed them as representing the entire movement.
None of that could keep the movement from growing. Soon its followers numbered in the millions, with literally thousands of chapters springing up in cities and counties across the nation.
Armey's FreedomWorks in some ways acted as a midwife to the movement, helping it organize a major rally on July 4, while also defending the attempts that soon emerged from Republican politicians who mistakenly thought they could bend the emerging movement to their own political purposes.
Fox News host Glenn Beck's 9-12 Project played a major role, especially as tragic important anniversary of 9/11 approached. So did lesser known upstart groups such as SmartGirlPolitics.com, the sassy site targeting soccer moms who decided they were fed up and just wouldn't take it anymore.
Along the way, the movement experienced some growing pains and internal divisions. Most reporters never quite could comprehend that a grass-roots movement by design is not supposed to speak with a single voice from a single leader. But the tea parties kept growing anyway, some of them adding new members at a reported rate of more than 10,000 per month at one point. Pundits shifted from ridiculing the movement, to predicting that its force would split the Republican Party.
Soon the movement began to show political clout as well. Aided by grass-roots clout, the Republican Party thought to be on the ropes just a year ago scored stunning electoral victories in New Jersey and Virginia.
Finally, Scott Brown achieved the Massachusetts miracle, seizing the Senate seat formerly occupied by the late liberal lion Sen. Ted Kennedy, in large part thanks to making opposition to the president's healthcare agenda his No. 1 issue.
While the exact event that marks the advent of tea party fervor in America is a matter of some dispute, a year has passed now since the first scattered rallies lit the fuse on the tea party movement's political pyrotechnics. No one could have guessed its impact, and pundits say it may be almost as difficult to predict what lies ahead as it was to anticipate the grass-roots' emergence.
For now, all eyes are focused on the midterms. And in the wake of the healthcare summit, Armey believes Democrats are headed for yet another brutal collision with the will of the American people.
"I would say that this healthcare summit is one of [the] giant missteps carried out by President Obama [that will] increase the intensity and magnitude [of the tea party movement]. One, he's got this healthcare summit which, first of all, was a dog-and-pony show. But second, [Democrats said] 'We're going to do this whether you like it or not.'
"There are a lot of people now saying, 'Is this guy ever going to listen to us?' He got set back on his heels with the Massachusetts victory, but now he's back at it again."
Leahy says his organization, which will commemorate the movement's one-year anniversary with a webcast honoring 52 of the original tea party pioneers, is getting ready to roll out "Victory in a Box." That's part of a new system tea party activists can use to mobilize voter turnout for conservative candidates at the local and precinct level. The all-day training session is available Saturday at VMIonline.com. He also predicts the current trend of using tea-party related political action committees to raise money to influence political outcomes will continue to gain momentum.
Leahy is confident those efforts will be successful.
"I think a year from today, we will see the vast energy of average Americans who love their country translated into a changeover in the House of Representatives," he predicts. "Nancy Pelosi will no longer be Speaker of the House come January of 2011.
"If you could see the energy on the ground, you would know that is absolutely inevitable. And any pundit who is making an assessment based on reading white papers and trying to read polls is completely disconnected from what is happening on the ground," he adds.
And what about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent prediction that once unemployment drops the tea party movement will evaporate?
Not likely, says Armey. He concedes some activists will be tempted to return to their normal lives if Democrats lose control of Congress in November.
"But while they are retiring back into their lives," he tells Newsmax, "they'll be looking at the politicians in office in Washington and reminding them, 'I'll be ba-a-a-a-ck if you don't listen to us.' So maybe we can pass that on to Arnold."
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