WASHINGTON — At the very moment President Barack Obama was giving a speech about how his policies were helping the American taxpayer, Melinda Pennington was standing in a cold, steady rain in a muddy park across the street from the White House, detailing how the president was betraying the American taxpayer.
"There's the spending, and it seems like every day there's something else they're trying to shove down our throats," said Pennington, 44, who drove from Wanette, Okla., with her husband and three kids for the Tax Day Tea Party in Lafayette Park.
"Everything they are trying to shove down our throats is insulting: amnesty, universal health care — I don't want your health care. There's just so much. And how are our kids going to pay for all this?"
At tea parties across the country on Wednesday, the deadline for filing federal income tax returns, frustrated conservatives gathered to protest the Obama administration's agenda for taxes and spending, and to urge a second, more peaceful revolution aimed at restoring what they see as commonsense, limited government. (One protester took it a step further, lobbing a box of tea bags over the White House fence and causing police to clear the area while a bomb squad was called.)
Much of their anger stemmed from a feeling that the Democrat-led Congress and the administration were rescuing AIG, General Motors, Chrysler, big banks and people who couldn't pay their mortgages at the expense of the hardworking little guy, rewarding bad behavior and taking the first steps toward full-blown American socialism.
But at a time when much of the nation still swoons in Obamamania — Look, he got the girls a puppy! — it was also a chance to join voices with like-minded souls in a setting where GM is Government Motors, universal health care is a socialist plot and the most dangerous thing about global warming — if it exists — is that the government might try to do something about it.
With Democrats in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in 15 years, many conservatives feel ignored. The new world order has rattled them.
"The thing that's the most disheartening is that we're the ones that are paying the taxes," said Rhonda Crist, 49, of Fayetteville, N.C., expressing a sentiment common at the Washington rally that, except for liberal Hollywood types, "conservatives pay the majority of the taxes. And we're not getting a voice. We're not being heard."
What's more, policies that seemed unthinkable for most of the decade — on abortion, on foreign policy, on taxes and spending, on the environment — now are moving forward. "It's like they're railroading things through Congress because they now have the opportunity — they being the Democrats — they've been waiting for," said Bill Adams, 50, of Tampa, who owns an office furniture supplier and was attending his first political rally, a tea party in downtown Tampa.
"They're trying to do as much as humanly possible before the people rise up and stand up against them."
In places, turnout was impressive. Several hundred gathered in Tampa, thousands came together in Columbia, S.C., and in Washington, despite rain and temperatures in the 40s, about 2,000 people gathered to cheer conservative luminaries like antitax activist Grover Norquist, talk show host Laura Ingraham and Alan Keyes, the activist and former presidential candidate.
In tone and timbre, if not ideology, the event was reminiscent of liberal rallies six and seven years ago, when conservatives were solidly in control of Washington. Then President George W. Bush was being lampooned on the posters, and Bush was accused of trampling the Constitution and driving the country to ruination.
And like the conservatives rallying Wednesday, the liberals then were mostly talking to themselves. Political change didn't begin until their outrage, particularly over the war in Iraq, began to spread among independent and moderate voters, just in time for the 2006 congressional elections.
No one interviewed at the Washington and Tampa rallies even thought about voting for Obama in November. But many at the Washington rally expressed disgust with the Republican Party as well, deriding it as leaderless and almost as morally bankrupt as the Democrats. Nevertheless, organizers noted the opposition never could have mustered tens of thousands of people across the nation to protest a president's policies within the first three months of his first term.
Marilyn Ochs, 65, a retired teacher and Republican from Bethesda, Md., who stood in the rain with an American flag at the Washington tea party, said it would be a mistake to overstate the size or depth of the movement on display Wednesday, and that ill temper with the GOP leaves it without a powerful political platform.
"It's not that big and it's not that deep — yet," she said as the crowd chanted "Freedom, Freedom, Freedom." "I don't see anything political happening now. I just see that people are getting their beliefs out there. I don't know what's going to happen. I only know this is the beginning."
Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report from Tampa. Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.
What's a tea party?
The precise origin of the new tea parties ("tea" stands for "Taxed Enough Already") is unclear, but the first round of events was held in about 40 cities on Feb. 27, as Obama was pushing the $789 billion economic stimulus package. Dozens have been held around the country since, including one in Orlando March 21 that drew at least 4,000. Tax Day Tea Parties were scheduled in 600 to 800 cities and towns, organizers said. Critics have labeled the events "astro turfing," or fake grass roots activism driven by conservative groups such as FreedomWorks.