Coverage of Tea Parties Evolves With the Movement

The tea party movement is just over a year old, and it’s good to see the press’s coverage mature along with it.

I’m not talking about spot news coverage of Sarah Palin’s weekend appearance in Harry Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, Nev., or the dozens of local news stories about impassioned activists that are sure to come along the 42-city tea party bus tour that ends up in Washington on April 15.

In general, the press has been slow to catch up to a force that’s been having a real influence on the public discourse for a while now. The Washington Post has lately beefed up its coverage of the movement, dedicating a national desk reporter to the beat and, as Greg Marx noted last week, bringing in my former colleague Dave Weigel from The Washington Independent to cover the story online.

In the last couple of days, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have found fresh angles and done on-the-ground reporting to help readers make sense of the movement.

The Journal weighed in today with page-one treatment of the tough political situation the tea party crowd faces as it members try to make the move from political activists to elected officials.

Mr. Meade’s experience goes to the heart of a debate roiling the nascent movement: Should it back fervent long shots who hew to its antigovernment views, or should it rally around more traditional candidates, even if they don’t perfectly reflect the movement’s distaste for incumbents, taxes and spending?

The question is being asked as homegrown candidates confront brute realities of politics: reluctant donors, limited party support, inexperienced staffers and the uphill fight against incumbents.

The piece makes clear just how important this challenge is. Lots of tea party activists are throwing their hat in the political ring, only to find just how hard it is to actually get elected and start changing things. As one strategist explains: “if the tea party has no electoral success, then the movement itself will fold.” Pretty simple.

The Journal could have done a bit better in backing up its piece with some data. These details about the “wave of newcomers” seeking public office don’t quite cut it:

There are now 617 more Republicans running in congressional primaries than ran in the last midterm election, in 2006, according to the Federal Elections Commission. That’s up 134%.

The number of Democrats in primaries remains almost unchanged from 2006, when the party gained 30 seats in the House and six in the Senate.

I’m guessing that because Democrats are in the majority, they’ve got fewer contested primaries, and therefore fewer primary candidates. Is that part of the explanation? Also, is that a comparison between people who’ve filed statements of candidacy in this cycle and those who actually ran in 2006? Or is it comparing the number of candidates this March with the number who had filed two years ago?

But the story nicely describes the current moment, and what’s at stake for the movement And there’s no shortage of anecdotes to show that the tea party movement has inspired a lot of candidates, and the belief among some organizers that they need to focus on picking out the winners.

Few House races are stirring more tea-party fervor than the sprawling 5th District in southern Virginia, where seven Republican candidates are battling for the right to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello.

Five of the Republicans claim allegiance to the tea-party mantle: two transplanted real-estate moguls, a pilot, a teacher and an Internet entrepreneur.

“It’s a train wreck, no doubt about it,” says Mark Lloyd, founder of the Lynchburg Tea Party and a leading figure in the Virginia insurgency. “My proposal is we give everyone a tire iron and have them work it out in the parking lot.”

The Times took a different approach on Sunday, looking at some tea party activists who got involved when they were unemployed, and the tricky line between government programs that are acceptable to the movement and those that aren’t.

Mr. Grimes is one of many Tea Party members jolted into action by economic distress. At rallies, gatherings and training sessions in recent months, activists often tell a similar story in interviews: they had lost their jobs, or perhaps watched their homes plummet in value, and they found common cause in the Tea Party’s fight for lower taxes and smaller government.

The Great Depression, too, mobilized many middle-class people who had fallen on hard times. Though, as Michael Kazin, the author of “The Populist Persuasion,” notes, they tended to push for more government involvement. The Tea Party vehemently wants less — though a number of its members acknowledge that they are relying on government programs for help.

The story brings in several activists who receive benefits like Medicare and Social Security, who explain that they paid into those programs, “so they are getting what they deserve.” And it helps show just where—and how—they draw that tricky line.

“All I know is government was put here for certain reasons,” Ms. Reimer said. “They were not put here to run banks, insurance companies, and health care and automobile companies. They were put here to keep us safe.”

She has no patience for the Obama administration’s bailouts and its actions on health care. “I just don’t trust this government,” Ms. Reimer said.

Another unemployed activist blames the government’s support for free trade for the loss of his auto-parts sales job.

He and others do not see any contradictions in their arguments for smaller government even as they argue that it should do more to prevent job loss or cuts to Medicare. After a year of angry debate, emotion outweighs fact.

“If you don’t trust the mindset or the value system of the people running the system, you can’t even look at the facts anymore,” Mr. Grimes said.

The tea party movement is going to be with us for a while. The MSM seems to be wrapping its mind around that idea.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at