The 600 delegates at the National Tea Party Convention feel taxed to death, ignored by their elected representatives and the media, and appalled at the federal government's spending -- and there are millions of Americans just like them. Their anger has helped claim some political scalps, and they vow to "take back America." What is unclear to them, and to the political establishment watching warily, is how they might do this.
It's a critical moment for a movement that is unmistakably people-powered, that has been deliberately left leaderless to give voice to all frustrations. And although the mood here has been festive, even giddy, the fluidity of the group has been on full display.
Here was a California woman counseling people on how to register new Republican voters in their communities, but there were others who criticize the Republican Party as fiercely as they do the Democratic Party. Here attendees lashed out against the practices of the Washington establishment, but there a man from Memphis announced the formation of a political action committee. Here a former congressman delivered a fiery defense of America's "Judeo-Christian values," but there delegates walked out of a prayer session they thought crossed a line.
The convention, which concludes Saturday night with a keynote address by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (R), in some respects has had the feel of a big blind date. The delegates chatted each other up for a year online, checking out each other's ideas and grievances, and they thought they might have something in common. Now they are spending a couple of days together, at a very nice resort, nibbling hibachi beef and browsing elegant "tea bag" jewelry, to see whether they like each other enough to be together.
Jeff Link, a luxury jewelry maker from New York, says that President George W. Bush started the fiscal policies that ruined the economy and that President Obama is making them worse, a belief shared by many here. But, he says, looking at the crowd, which is overwhelmingly white and middle-aged, "it saddens me not to see this gathering more diverse."
Jim Linn, an electrical engineer from San Diego, says that strict term limits must be imposed to "get control of Congress" and that the Constitution must be interpreted in ways that match his understanding of the Founders' intent. That would mean scrapping a lot of the amendments, he acknowledges, but not Nos. 2, 10, 16 and 17. He worries that a deeper depression is coming, and he tells his friends to store food, even though he knows it makes him sound like a crackpot.