Tea Party stirs in wake of tax controversy

Leaders of the movement hope outrage over the IRS will rekindle grassroots activism

Protesters during a Tea Party rally in front of the IRS building in Denver on Tuesday. Photograph: Dana Romanoff/The New York Times

Protesters during a Tea Party rally in front of the IRS building in Denver on Tuesday. Photograph: Dana Romanoff/The New York Times


They are getting the band back together.

In the well-burnished legend of its founding, the Tea Party movement sprang to life at grassroots rallies, a spontaneous protest against government overreach that grew and grew until it stunned Democrats and many moderate Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections.

On Tuesday, rallies across the country to protest the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) targeting of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status recalled those glory days, drawing colourful crowds in three-cornered hats, with members singing patriotic songs and waving provocative signs such as “Fire the liars” and “IRSS” – the last two letters drawn like the lightning bolts of the Nazi Schutzstaffel.

Leaders of the Tea Party movement hope outrage over the IRS will rekindle grassroots activism that in many places went dormant after big Republican electoral defeats of November 2012. They aim to link the current scandal to other government programmes they consider overweening – principally the rollout of the health care overhaul law – and generate a Republican wave in the 2014 midterm elections reminiscent of 2010’s.

But the first step in that process, Tuesday’s rallies, suggested that future electoral success was far from inevitable. Many who showed up at the rallies seemed to be old hands in the movement rather than fresh blood. Of a dozen protesters interviewed at one of the largest events, outside the Cincinnati IRS office, which drew hundreds, 11 people said they were already active in Tea Party groups.

‘Waterboard Obama!’
The demographic was similar at a smaller rally in Phoenix, where Harry Mathews described himself as a kind of itinerant activist visiting school board meetings and the like. “I get in my car and think, ‘Where am I going to today?’” he said. There, the relaxed mood of the crowd of about 40 contrasted with the vehemence of at least one of their chants, “Waterboard Obama! Waterboard Hillary!”

The rallies were organised by the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organisation that distributed talking points for participants and even sample Twitter messages, like “IRS scandals illustrate why America needs the Tea Party!”

Even though Tea Party groups were in the crosshairs of the IRS, the sense of injustice may be felt well beyond the movement, fuelling a broader anger at big government that feeds Republicans’ electoral ambitions to expand their House majority and win back the Senate in 2014.

“When it comes to the IRS, we’re all Tea Partyers,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist in Kentucky.

Over the weekend, at the nominating convention of the Republican Party of Virginia, a parade of speakers criticised the IRS to energise 8,000 party stalwarts to campaign for Republican nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general this year.

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster, said the IRS inquiry had raised distrust of government, an issue on which independent voters agree with Republicans. “The irony is the Republican Party is trying to rebrand itself to attract more women, minorities and independents,” she said. “The IRS scandal may have helped them – for free.”

Abuse of power
Matt Kibbe, the president of FreedomWorks, a political action committee that has funnelled millions of dollars to Tea Party candidates, said the IRS actions precisely illustrated the movement’s founding critique that big government leads to abuse of power.

“It all feeds into this narrative, which makes 2014 look a lot more like 2010,” he said. “We won’t have the clutter of a presidential race. We’re going to be able to connect with the broader values of Americans who don’t think federal agencies should choose winners and losers.”

But Representative Steve Israel of New York, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Republicans were overplaying their hand, as illustrated by the long series of investigations they plan in Congress.

“House Republicans are desperate to distract the American people from their chaos, dysfunction and obstruction, but they’re overreaching and it will boomerang on them,” he said.

At the Cincinnati rally, several hundred protesters gathered outside the John Weld Peck Federal Building, which houses the IRS division at the centre of the controversy, where officials singled out Tea Party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

Stephen White of Burlington, Kentucky, was unequivocal about the consequences he sought for the agency’s employees. “I want the people in charge in Washington to be fired and jailed,” he said.

‘A total distrust’
Diane Eisele of Springfield Township, a northern suburb, said the controversy was merely the latest evidence of a corrupt Obama administration, ticking off other controversial episodes such as the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and the botched “Fast and furious” gun operation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. “It’s created a total distrust of the government,” said Eisele, who said she had been active in Tea Party groups for more than three years.

The crowd broke into chants of “You work for us,” “IRS! KGB!” and “Remember Benghazi.” – (New York Times)