One year out, Tea Party now has legitimacy — and outspoken critics

The populist Tea Party movement in one year has evolved from a loose, scattered group of protesters to a considerable, grass-roots movement with a key talent for getting attention.

The group first attracted widespread attention nearly a year ago when it held rallies to protest taxation and government spending on April 15, 2009. A year later, a variety of large and small Tea Party rallies are planned on and around this year’s federal income tax deadline day of April 15.

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Seven separate events are planned in the District of Columbia, for instance, plus 10 in Virginia and two in Maryland.

Specifically in Washington, FreedomWorks.org, the group founded by former House Speaker Dick Armey (R-Texas), is holding a 9 a.m. “Liberty Summit” at the Ronald Reagan Building ampitheatre and a 6 p.m. rally at the Washington Monument. In between, the group plans to lobby members of Congress. A promotional bus tour called the Tea Party Express also plans an event on Boston on April 14 — featuring former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) — and is scheduled to be in Washington the next day.

Political consultant David Gergen, who has worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations, said the Tea Party movement is a mix of energy and risk, crediting the group with attracting public support more quickly than any other grass-roots group he has seen.

"Many Republicans believe the Tea Party is the fuel in their tank, but there is a danger that the fuel is too high an octane and could blow up on some candidates," he said. "The relationship needs to be handled with great care, and with understanding on both sides. There will be times when Republicans will wince at some elements of the movement, and there will be times when Tea Partiers will have to swallow hard at the mainstream behavior of some Republicans, because they want more radical changes than some Republicans are willing to provide. It's going to be an uneasy but potentially very productive relationship."

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, pins the movement down to a 5,000-person rally in Orlando, Fla. in late March 2009, but acknowledges the movement started to explode after the rallies last April 15. Norquist pronounces himself “pleasantly surprised” with the group’s growth over the past year, crediting the movement with providing “new blood” for the Republican Party.

“Orlando was the first indication to me that something was moving, but April 15 was when we realized Orlando wasn’t a fluke,” Norquist told The Hill. “They’re focused on spending in a way I haven’t seen before, and I’ve been active in these circles for 30 years. I’m used to seeing excitement about tax increases, but we’ve never been able to get people interested in spending. This time, people got angry.”

Bill Wilson, president of Americans for Limited Government, remembers April 2009 as “that first rush of passion.”

“This is the type of thing that cynics in Washington said would never happen,” Wilson said. “But it’s happened. Look at that Rasmussen poll. That’s the best indicator that not only has this gone mainstream, but it’s spread through the entire system.”

Since April 15 2009, large rallies have been held in U.S. cities. Tea Party Patriots claim to have built an organization that has 1,500 chapters. A Rasmussen poll published March 28 found 52 percent of voters consider the average Tea Party member to have a better understanding of national issues, compared to just 30 percent for a member of Congress.

For all of its accomplishments, however, the movement remains unregistered as a political party, unorganized in formal leadership, and splintered into sub-groups.

Tea party rallies have focused their ire on the Obama administration, which they see as having launched a dangerous expansion of government. Groups have savaged the administration’s healthcare law and criticized it for over-spending.

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, has said it is bewildering that a movement opposed to taxes is upset with his administration.

“Any time that you have severe economic conditions, there is always an element of disaffection that can mutate into something that’s unhealthy," Axelrod said in an April 2009 CBS News interview. "The thing that bewilders me is this President just cut taxes for 95 percent of the American people. So I think the tea bags should be directed elsewhere, because he certainly understands the burden that people face.”

Some Democrats say the Tea Party has been a mixed blessing. While it has energized opposition to Obama’s agenda, some in the party say it has also divided and brought negative attention to the GOP.

“Considering the divisive and corrosive inter-party battles playing out between Republican establishment candidates and tea party candidates in states across the country including Arizona, Florida and Utah, I'd say the tea party's negative impact on the Republican Party at-large will continue to plague Republicans well into this fall's elections,” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Brandi Hoffine.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Mich.), one of the Tea Party’s most prominent supporters in Congress, defends the group fiercely against such attacks. Bachmann recently accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) of deliberately inciting an episode last month at the Capitol, in which Pelosi and other Democrats alleged they were spat upon and insulted with racial epithets by Tea Party activists.

“The media wants you to believe that tea party patriots are toothless hillbillies,” Bachmann said in a recent radio interview. “This is a very sophisticated crowd.”

Norquist said if the movement stays sober-headed and motivated, his only worry is that that excitement will eventually ebb.

“What concerns me is if people go to a rally, make a bunch a noise and then go home and forget that what elected officials really hear is the ballots,” he said. “That’s what keeps me up at night.”