What's Important About the Tea Party?

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The short answer: it's complicated.

With the new Congress being sworn in this week, the big papers are keeping tabs on what the Tea Party has to say about the lame-duck session and the new GOP majority.

The New York Times called Tea Party Patriots co-leader Mark Meckler and Tea Party Nation honcho Judson Phillips and found that both are displeased with congressional Republicans. The LA Times tells us Tea Partiers will be keeping close tabs on the new Congress, with Meckler's group organizing visits to House offices. The Washington Post reports that the Constitution will be read on the House floor, a clear nod to the movement.

Two years after its inception, the Tea Party movement is still difficult to understand, and the media still struggles with the same problems in covering it.

The movement remains disparate and organized at a local level, with a half-dozen national groups playing large roles in organizing rallies, hosting conference calls, raising and spending money, and communicating with activists in a fashion that maintains loose continuity for the idea of what the "Tea Party" is or stands for.

The people who run these groups typically don't get along with each other. There are large egos involved today, the same egos that were involved at the beginning.

As we ask the same questions now as we did in early 2009--what do Tea Partiers think? what is the significance of the movement? what's important about it?--we're running into the same problem: It's inherently difficult, and probably impossible, to say what the whole movement is thinking. And what it's thinking is what politicians respond to. NYT stories about Meckler's and Phillips's discontent, for instance, account for how politicians react to the Tea Party, and, consequently, the movement's power.

So, what do we know? We know that Republicans will read the Constitution on the House floor, and that they'll be getting calls from activists. Washington-based groups that have lobbying arms, like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, will be in touch with congressional offices too.

Lawmakers care. They're going to govern in a way they think will please the movement.

And that's important. But the details are still up in the air.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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