Inside Tea Party America
By Kate Zernike
Times Books, 256 pages
The author of Boiling Mad is a New York Times reporter, and the title suggests a hostile view of the Tea Party movement as a cauldron of undifferentiated rage. The book itself is a pleasant surprise. Kate Zernike has produced a largely fair and measured account of the populist rebellion against Barack Obama’s aggressively liberal presidency. Zernike took the movement seriously at a time when many liberal journalists and politicians were dismissing it, and the results of the 2010 elections prove that she was right to do so.
Boiling Mad is a thoroughly reported account of the origins of the Tea Party movement. The author chronicles how social media, previously used to great effect by the Obama campaign and left-wing groups like MoveOn.org, “allowed the Tea Party to grow faster than any previous conservative movement.” She disputes the “legend” that “it all started on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on Thursday, February 19, 2009,” when CNBC’s Rick Santelli delivered a rant against the new administration’s mortgage-assistance plan for “‘promoting bad behavior,’ rewarding ‘the losers’ at the expense of people who had played by the rules.”
Zernike places the Tea Party’s genesis three days earlier, when 29-year-old Keli Carender of Seattle held a rally of “little more than a hundred people” opposing Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package. Carender is an appealing figure, for she counters the media stereotype of the Tea Party enthusiast: “Half-Mexican, with a pierced nose, she taught basic math to adults on welfare and performed with an improv company on weekends.”
This is not to say that Zernike is ideologically sympathetic to the Tea Partiers or even that she rejects the stereotypes altogether. At one point, she declares that “race certainly played some part in the opposition to Obama”:
The fact that about 30 percent of the Tea Party supporters in the New York Times/CBS poll believed that Obama was not born in this country and therefore was not eligible to be president reflected that. So did the people who continued to insist, incorrectly, that he was a Muslim. You had to wonder, seeing the DON’T TAX ME, BRO signs at rallies, whether anyone would have waved the same warning at any other Democratic president.
This is a remarkably weak argument. All recent presidents have been the subject of fringe conspiracy theories and character attacks, and there is nothing particularly racial about the discreditable notions that Obama was born overseas and that he is a secret Muslim. The vast majority of black Americans, after all, are native-born Christians. As for “Don’t tax me, bro,” can Zernike really be unaware of the viral video from 2007 in which University of Florida undergraduate Andrew Meyer pleads with police arresting him at a John Kerry town-hall forum, “Don’t tase me, bro!”?
Yet the race argument is Zernike’s antithesis, not her thesis. “If race was a factor for some Tea Partiers,” she hastens to acknowledge, “it was not the driving force for a large number—and possibly most—of them.” There is no indication that it was for any of the activists Zernike interviews.
Nor do they come across merely as “boiling mad.” Zernike depicts a range of emotions, from frustration over an unresponsive government and anxiety about ruinous spending to love of country and joy in the fellowship of a common cause. Such anger as she portrays is more a determined fury than an incoherent rage. “Barack Obama’s fatal mistake was that he came between me and my child’s future,” Jennifer Stefano of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, tells Zernike. “And the Republicans failed to put up a defense.”
Zernike shows that the Tea Party was a revolt against the Republican establishment as well as the Democratic one. The results were mixed. Stefano runs for a spot on the state Republican committee. The Republican Party goes to court and wins an injunction against her and other Tea Party candidates, based on a dubious interpretation of state election law. Stefano nonetheless wins a seat on the local committee. Tea Party activists object to the Pennsylvania GOP’s plan to anoint former congressman Mike Fitzpatrick to challenge incumbent Patrick Murphy, who ousted Fitzpatrick in 2006. They win a moral victory when Fitzpatrick yields to their demand for an open primary. Zernike does not mention that Fitzpatrick won the primary easily; he went on to beat Murphy in November.
The Tea Party has greater success in Kentucky, where libertarian scion Rand Paul defeats establishment favorite Trey Grayson in the primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Zernike describes Grayson, “the son of a prominent banker,” as having been “bred to be a United States Senator.” But he is frustrated at Paul’s ability to don the outsider’s mantle: “You know, if he were Rand Smith, ophthalmologist from Bowling Green, Kentucky, we wouldn’t be talking about him,” Grayson tells Zernike. “I just kind of find it ironic, here I am, I’ve just worked my way up through campaigns, I’m the first in my family to run for office….I’m not the country club Republican who lives in a gated community whose dad’s in Congress.”
We also learn that Beltway activists had been pushing the Tea Party idea for years before it caught on in 2009. In 2002, Citizens for a Sound Economy (later renamed FreedomWorks) set up a website for the “U.S. Tea Party,” featuring “a cartoon video game where a visitor to the site could click on boxes of tea to dump in the harbor while ‘Redcoat [Tom] Daschle’”—then Senate majority leader—“stood on the wharf demanding, ‘Gimme all your money.’” Five years later, Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, the chairman and president of FreedomWorks, shopped an op-ed article “proposing the Boston Tea Party as a model of grassroots pressure on an overbearing central government….FreedomWorks couldn’t get the op-ed published anywhere in 2007. Even Armey’s spokesman thought the historical comparison ‘boring.’”
This is a more telling anecdote than Zernike seems to realize. Critics have pointed to groups like FreedomWorks, which helps organize and train activists around the country, as evidence that the Tea Party is “AstroTurf,” the Beltway term for a fake grassroots movement. In reality, it took a genuine grassroots movement to redeem FreedomWorks’s failed marketing campaign.
Zernike does not make that connection, and this points to the weakness of her book. She is a fine reporter but not much of a thinker. When she does venture into policy or political analysis, the results are sometimes embarrassingly clueless. She puzzles over how Tea Party activists “could be impervious to reports from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the closest thing the government has to a neutral arbiter, that the federal stimulus had cut taxes and created millions of jobs and that the health care legislation passed in 2010 would reduce the federal deficit.” She might consider this observation, from a Nobel Prize–winning economist: “The CBO is the servant of members of Congress, which means that if a Congressman asks it to analyze a plan under certain assumptions, it will do just that—no matter how unrealistic the assumptions may be.” That quote comes from Zernike’s colleague on the Times op-ed page Paul Krugman.
Boiling Mad also suffers from awkward timing. The book seems to have gone to press in mid-June, long preceding not only the general election but many primaries as well. The official publication date was September 14, the day Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell upset the liberal Representative Mike Castle to become Delaware’s Republican nominee for U.?S. Senate. Zernike makes no mention of O’Donnell—or of fellow unsuccessful Tea Party candidates Ken Buck of Colorado and Joe Miller of Alaska, or successful ones Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Mike Lee of Utah, all nominated in primaries during the summer. (Nevada’s Sharron Angle makes a passing appearance, as does Bob Bennett, the Utah incumbent who was eliminated from the primary at a party convention in May.)
November’s results illuminate both the promise and the peril of the Tea Party. Americans delivered a clear repudiation of the Obama agenda. According to exit polls, 55 percent of voters disapproved of Obama’s job performance, and they voted for Republican House candidates 84 percent to 11 percent. Yet populism turns out not to be universally popular. An April 2010 New York Times poll, whose results are included as an appendix to Boiling Mad, found that only 18 percent of Americans described themselves as Tea Party supporters. November exit polls put the number considerably higher, at 41 percent, but still well short of a majority.
Doubtless some conservatives and Republicans are uncomfortable with the demonstrativeness of the Tea Party. Centrist and independent voters were certainly put off by candidates who seemed ideologically extreme or defective in character, and that cost the Republicans as many as three Senate seats. Perhaps the Tea Party will speak for the majority of Americans if it can learn to speak a little more softly.