Tea Party remains movement with a mission

By Paul Adams
Phoenix, Arizona

image captionAnti-Obama sentiment was abundant at the first annual Tea Party Policy Summit in Arizona

Two years ago, the Tea Party movement launched itself, noisily, onto the political stage. By last November, it could take credit for helping to determine the composition of the new US Congress. But at the first annual Tea Party Policy summit in Arizona, there was no sign of complacency.

Amid the booths selling anti-Obama t-shirts and guidebooks to political activism, the spirit of this grassroots insurgency burned brightly.

The Tea Party may already have had a major impact on American politics, but members like Sally Banghart from Colorado said they were not done yet.

"I'm on a mission," she said. "I really believe in this. I just think it's time for the citizens to control the government, and we haven't been doing that."

The Tea Party Patriots, which organised this get-together of more than 2,000 activists (with another 1,500 joining on line), is the largest of the disparate groups that exist under the broad banner of the Tea Party movement.

Steely determination

"We're really digging deep into the issues," said co-founder Jenny Beth Martin, during the three day event that included breakout sessions on hot button issues like the debt ceiling ("Opportunities, Options and Action), immigration and healthcare reform. Other popular sessions included citizen journalism and online activism.

"People are really paying attention," Ms Martin said. "They're asking questions. They want to understand this so they can go back, teach other people and keep pressure on these elected officials until we get the change we're looking for."

A sense of mortal danger, and a steely determination to confront it, was on display throughout the event, with speakers warning that the American dream was in danger.

Louie Gohmert, a Republican congressman from Texas, said the country was at a crossroads.

"We could go another two hundred years as a great nation...or we could lose it all," he said.

"With the amount of money that we're spending and the weakness we're beginning to show internationally, it doesn't look good."

'Miracle of America'

But along with the perception of danger, waves of patriotic nostalgia wash over the summit.

American exceptionalism - the belief that this is a country unlike any other, uniquely worth preserving - is deeply rooted here. Some people even chose to wear it.

"The costume is all about the miracle of America," said Carol Davis, wearing a colonial era dress, apron and mop cap.

image captionRon Paul: Godfather of the Tea Party movement

The Miracle, it turns out, refers to a musical production performed to an appreciative summit audience later in the evening, highlighting providential episodes from America's foundation.

It's a celebration of divine intervention and the nation's religious underpinnings, which Ms Davis and many on the religious right say have been swept under the carpet.

"Those values and principles of the god-fearing men that created this nation need to be restored," she said.

But if Christian conservatism and judicial constructionism were on display here, it's government spending, and the country's mountainous debt that most concerned the audience and the summit's organisers.

Congress, with dozens of sympathetic new Republican members, has begun to grapple with the issue, but obviously not to the satisfaction of anyone here.

"The Republicans, prior to the election in November, said we're going to cut a hundred billion dollars," said Jenny Beth Martin.

"They haven't done that. They backed away from it almost immediately, they're playing word games and we're really disappointed with it."

Movement with a mission

image captionMusical production 'The Miracle of America' celebrates events from the nation's religious history

The suspicion that Republicans, even members of the so-called Tea Party caucus, don't have the stomach for a really brutal assault on government spending, is one that stalked the halls here.

The godfather of the movement, the two-time presidential candidate, Ron Paul, busy signing books and yellow Tea Party scarves, spoke with characteristic pessimism on the subject of debt and deficits.

"Most people realise that the budget isn't going to be balanced for years and years to come," he told the BBC. "No-body talks about what they have to talk about, and that is rejecting the notion that you can have endless welfare, from cradle to grave and endless support for an American empire around the world. You just can't do it."

With its patriotic fervour and biblical overtones, the Tea Party summit can all get a little overwhelming. But make no mistake. This remains a movement with a mission, with one foot wedged firmly in the door of Congress and a membership ferociously determined to make itself heard.

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