Tracking the Tea Parties

Good work from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Thumbs up to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a bright, engaging piece about the Tea Party movement in Wisconsin. The piece, by Bill Glauber, began with a intriguing scene setter that placed the Tea Partiers in Milwaukee on a cold, damp Saturday afternoon in March 2009, when a talk radio host named Vicki McKenna stood up and urged the crowd to attend a tea party on the Capitol steps in Madison on April 15. “It was that moment,” wrote Glauber, “with the Republican Party’s fortunes seemingly at their lowest, when the statewide tea party movement was ignited.”

He reported that while the tea party phenomenon has “wreaked havoc with some Republican races nationally, the movement has found common ground with the Republican Party in Wisconsin.” That was a great nut graph that kept me reading the story, and probably others as well. Then Glauber began his narrative—and it wasn’t the usual herky-jerky news story with on-the-one hand and on-the-other hand reporting.

The piece flowed with substantive quotes from Republican honchos that put the tea partiers in perspective. First came a quote from Rebecca Kleefisch, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, who hit the sine qua non of the tea party’s message—smaller government, less taxes, and restoration of our personal rights and liberties—adding that both the Tea Party and the Republican party were on the same page when it came to those beliefs. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, who is the Republican candidate for governor, also talked about similarities between the Tea Party and local government scandals a few years back.

“Back then it was years of pent-up frustration over out-of-control government, taxes going up,” he said, adding that the same sentiments exist now, “but the lid that blew off was really about health care.” (In my visit to Wisconsin last week, I picked up the same dislike of health care reform, and will report on that in a later post.)

Glauber offered up the views of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan, a conservative thought leader, and Ron Johnson, a businessman who is swiftly gaining grassroots support to unseat Senator Russ Feingold, also a sentiment I noticed and will report on. In other words, Glauber’s piece reflected what voters are expressing—anger at Feingold.

Glauber strengthened his piece with comments from pollster Scott Rasmussen, who noted the Tea Party movement was a grass-roots phenomenon taking different forms in different places. A lot of people in the Tea Party don’t care about the battle between Republicans and Democrats. Rather, they have a dim view of both political parties, and are brought together by a frustration over spending, taxes, and deficits.

Glauber also talked to the state director of Americans for Prosperity, and revealed that the group backs the Tea Party—but he did not connect all the dots. A recent New Yorker piece told how Americans for Prosperity is linked to the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers, who spread their money around various grassroots groups to further their ideology of less government, low taxes, and small deficits. Perhaps Glauber can make that connection in future stories.

Thumbs down to The New York Times, whose recent Tea Party story, appearing on the same day as Glauber’s, was an unsatisfying bread-and-butter campaign piece. Slogging through it was tough.

It began by reporting that Republican centrists were eagerly awaiting a victory in last week’s Delaware primary, hoping it would bring another moderate Republican to the Senate. But Michael N. Castle, whom the Times called a “longtime and reliable moderate voice who could provide some counterbalance to the wave of conservatives poised to enter Congress,” was defeated. This, the Times said, raised “serious questions” about the future for party moderates like Maine’s Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins.

Okay, I guess it’s important for politicos to know that the Times is worried that moderates may fall off the cliff after November, but the rest of the story did nothing to engage the ordinary reader. It was soooo inside baseball. We learn that Snowe was crestfallen by the defeat of Castle, her personal friend, and “expressed surprise,” as the Times put it, that Republicans in Delaware rejected Castle, whom she called “the highest caliber, an outstanding public servant for the people of Delaware and the country.”

Then came words from Maine’s other Republican, moderate Susan Collins, who said “it is stunning that he could be defeated in a primary.”

The quotes in the Journal Sentinel piece actually illuminated the role of the Tea Party, while the Times served a bunch of react quotes from pols that mean little to people interested in the Tea Party’s ascendance.

The rest of the Times piece read like a collection of random notes understood by insiders and few others. Outgoing New Hampshire senator Judd Gregg said he believed primary voters were driven by frustration over federal spending and the economy. Given the rising influence of the Tea Party, votes of all Republicans are likely to come under Tea Party fire if the legislators stray off the reservation. The Senate Republican leadership attended a Capitol Hill fundraiser last week for Nevada Tea Party senatorial candidate Sharron Angle. Who cares?

We know large segments of the electorate are disengaged and disaffected this year. The Times piece shows why that might be so. The Journal Sentinel piece shows why it doesn’t have to be that way.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.