WASHINGTON -- Angry "tea party" patriots who launched a nationwide grassroots rebellion against an intrusive government, punitive taxes and reckless spending are rallying their troops once again. Their target is President Obama's government-run health care plan, but this time their ground forces are larger, their goals more ambitious, and their potential political impact is much greater.
These tea-party brigades have been a driving force behind the packed congressional town-hall phenomena that have stunned the Democrats, put the Obama administration on the defensive, and sent its health care reform polls into a nose dive.
This is the citizen-led movement that swept the country earlier this year in retaliation to the massive bailout and big spending bills coming out of the Democratic Congress. The seemingly spontaneous turnout at protest rallies throughout the nation has spawned an army of local groups and organizations that are now gearing up to make their voices heard in the battle over the biggest spending bill ever: creation of a new federally run entitlement that will expand the size and cost of government by trillions of dollars and dozens of bureaucracies.
Tea-party activists, made up of conservatives, libertarians, independents and ordinary citizens concerned about their country's direction, have shunned suggestions to merge themselves into larger organizations, preferring to make their impact felt locally. And they have effectively done that in this month's town-hall gatherings that have seized the White House's attention and may, in the end, defeat or significantly modify the health care bills now pending in Congress.
But now a Sacramento, Calif.-based group known as Our Country Deserves Better is gearing up to momentarily connect some of these disparate groups with an ambitious Tea Party Express caravan that will hold 35 rallies in cities and towns from California to Maine.
It will end with a rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 12 when Congress is expected to be moving health care legislation through the House and Senate -- a date when many tea-party groups had planned to gather here anyway. Their focus: health care legislation that they fear will further rob them of their freedoms and cripple the economy.
"In the past, we have focused on the excessive size of government, and now the debate is about the idea that government is becoming too powerful and making decisions it shouldn't make about people's personal lives, including health care decisions," said Joe Wierzbicki, coordinator of the committee that is planning the cross-country road trip that will begin on Aug. 28.
"I think the health care issues symbolize what the great debate in this country is about, and that is the overreaching of government, what is the appropriate role of government, and at what point does excessive government regulations and control interfere with the freedoms and liberties of individuals and their families," Wierzbicki told me.
"We are also asking individuals to go out to these town-hall meetings and express their views and mobilize," he added.
Before August, Our Country Deserves Better, which boasts 350,000 supporters, was entirely focused on the tax-and-spend issues that first sparked their protests.
But their focus broadened as the health care debate heated up, and the congressional town-hall meetings suddenly became the new front in the battle against Obama's big-government plans. That's when the Tea Party Express sent out a statement, saying that the central purpose of the 35 events would be to "rally Americans to oppose Barack Obama's government-run health care proposal." This is a movement that has a lot of supporters, but has been largely invisible nationally since it burst upon the scene earlier this year. But lately a number of groups both large and small have been increasingly active in the health care fight.
Americans for Prosperity has launched a "Patients First" bus trip that has been touring through a number of states with buses emblazoned with the campaign's banner logo "Hands off my health care." Officials say that hundreds of people have turned out at their stops.
"These are real people who came out and care about the issues. They want their voices heard," said Mary Ellen Burke, the group's spokesperson. The much larger American Conservative Union has been another force behind town-hall turnout, e-mailing lists to its members about the hundreds of town-hall meetings lawmakers have scheduled for the rest of the month. Its clarion call: "Speak up and be heard on the issue of government-run health care." But the Tea Party Express bus caravan's 22-day series of rallies in cities and towns from Reno, Nev., to Bridgeport, Conn., will be the centerpiece of this latest offensive against a government takeover of the national health care system.
"At the end of the day, most of the politicians in Washington right now are advancing an agenda that we believe is harmful to the country," said Wierzbicki. And these tea-party activists are determined to stop it. Participatory democracy, despite the cynics and critics, is as robust as ever and running at full throttle.