PHOENIX-"What they need to do is schedule fewer speakers and have more stuff like this," said a man sitting a few rows in front of me in a meeting room at the first Tea Party Summit in downtown Phoenix. The "stuff" he was talking about was a breakout session to launch an innovative plan to defeat the healthcare law using state legislatures.
Certainly the speeches in the main hall-including those from Fox News analyst Dick Morris, Rep. Ron Paul, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and conservative talk-show host Herman Cain-served up the kind of fiery patriotism and right-wing rhetoric associated with Tea Party events. Morris made a case for American exceptionalism, noting, "In Greece they're demonstrating in the streets for the government to do more. Here we're demonstrating for the government to do less." Pawlenty urged the crowd, whom he dubbed "modern day Paul Reveres," to rise up against big government spenders, while Paul played somewhat into the stereotype of the angry Tea Partier, saying they may represent a minority, but "an irate minority can accomplish a whole lot."
If his win in the on-site presidential straw poll was any indication, Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, proved to be the most popular speaker of the three-day event, which was sponsored by the Tea Party Patriots, a national coalition of 3,000 Tea Party groups. Invoking Ronald Reagan, Cain received an enthusiastic standing ovation after declaring that the American Dream can still come true if the government will get out of its citizens' way.
But while such tried-and-true conservative sentiments drew cheers from the crowd of more than 2,000 (with another 1,500 watching online), those who define Tea Partiers primarily as rabble-rousing Sarah Palin acolytes might be surprised to learn that many considered the headliners mere gravy. For them the conference meat came in numerous policy sessions where strategy talk dominated and the former Alaska governor went all but unmentioned.
Robert and Ginger Grier are relative newcomers to the movement. They got involved less than a year ago and decided to make a long trip to the conference from their home in Alabama-not to hear about spending, debt, or taxes, but to learn what they can do about education. Robert, a counselor for at-risk teens, and Ginger, a pharmacist and mom of three, say the issue is an important one for them both personally and professionally, and they hope the Tea Party will become an influential player in the drive for education reform. "That hasn't been talked about much in the speeches," said Ginger, "So we're really looking forward to the Bradley breakout [an education presentation and Q&A hosted by The Bradley Foundation]."
The Griers weren't alone in wanting to go deeper. Claire Morgan, a junior-high and high-school teacher and member of the Tucson Tea Party, had attended three sessions on the Constitution and the electoral college by Saturday afternoon, with plans to attend another on Sunday.
"I was particularly excited to hear about our efforts to combat the push for a national popular vote. To me the greatest political danger today is that people aren't educated about the concept of federalism," she said, adding, "There are so many people here that have expertise that they can share to empower the entire grassroots organization. It was one of the best things about the conference."
From state budgets to earmarks to regulatory reform, there seemed to be a breakout group to address every concern, with the biggest complaint of many being that they didn't have the opportunity to hear it all. A session titled "Big Labor and the Growth of Government" proved so popular, it played to a standing-room-only crowd with a long line of disappointed attendees waiting outside the door.
The evolution of the Tea Party from a nationwide collective of like-minded protestors to an on-the-ground network of specialty strategists has been both inevitable and intentional, according to Keli Carender, one of the people credited with launching the movement. Says Carender, a 29-year-old Seattle native who helped facilitate discussion during the Health Care Compact Session, "If the Tea Party doesn't seem as loud as we were when we first started, it's not because we've gone away but because we've hunkered down and gotten serious about policy and effecting change at the local, state, and federal levels."
As an example she cites True the Vote, an offshoot of a Houston Tea Party that started when members volunteered as poll workers and discovered widespread election fraud in their district. After tackling the issue at home, they put together a how-to manual for other Tea Party groups who want to strengthen the integrity of the voting system in their areas.
"This is what's so cool about the Tea Party and why it's still growing even if we're not out on the street all the time anymore protesting," explains Carender. "It's because groups like True the Vote and others are working on their pet issues and creating these resources that can then be shared throughout the entire network. So now none of the rest of us has to figure out how to deal with voter fraud in our states because True the Vote has done that for us."
Bonnie Angster of Sun City, Ariz., says she has seen this kind of specialization firsthand in her local Tea Party. "We had some members break off because they really wanted to focus on whether laws being proposed at the state and federal level are following the constitutional mandate, so now they meet separately and track and make calls, and send emails on that issue."
Chairman and CEO of the Sam Adams Alliance and Carender's co-presenter, Eric O'Keefe, said another significant strategy for the Tea Party going forward will be to exploit previously undervalued channels of influence, pointing out that Washington is not the only game in town.
"It can be really hard to get leverage with the national politicians and to get consensus and commitment at that level," he said. "But there's tremendous opportunity to recruit state legislators, city councils, precinct committeemen, even school board members." He later added, "We don't need to change election laws, we need to optimize the options we already have."
While Tea Party leaders make it clear that they will make every effort to keep Republicans (especially those they helped elect) accountable, their plan for optimization also includes turning their attention toward the nation's other major political party. One topic that seemed to be on everyone's lips was how to recruit conservative Democrats to run against liberal incumbents in the 2012 Democratic primaries.
After such big wins in the 2010 midterm election, where the Tea Party helped elect half of the 100 new members of Congress, Carender says broadening their outlook to the party that seems-at first glance-opposed to almost everything the Tea Party stands for, is simply smart politics.
"What we want to do is change the range of what's acceptable, and you're not going to do that by just focusing on Republicans," she says. She points to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin's midterm campaign in particular: "Who would have ever thought that a Democrat would have an ad where he's shooting a gun and putting a bullet through the cap-and-trade act? Jon Stewart made fun of it . . . to me that was pretty clear evidence that we had changed the conversation."
"We're not talking about a blitzkrieg, we're talking about trench warfare," said Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund from the main hall podium on Saturday. He was addressing the dangers of raising the debt ceiling, but he could just as easily have been describing the evolving and increasingly sophisticated Tea Party.