Rallies, protests, town halls, email petitions, call-in campaigns: None of these tactics are rocket science. But deployed strategically, with the coordination enabled by technology, they work. And they're cheap: ForAmerica and the Tea Party Patriots each estimated their campaigns cost about $200,000.
To be sure, the groups' achievement falls far short of victory. While the campaigns have succeeded at bending the Washington debate, they haven't achieved a policy goal — to the contrary, the exchanges opened on schedule this week — nor have they won converts across the aisle. The Tea Party's clout shows both the possibilities and the limitations of grassroots pressure on Congress — a tactic that advocates of a different persuasion have tried and failed to mobilize behind goals like gun control and immigration reform.
Where the right is concerned, however, the Tea Party's power shows no sign of waning. If anything, this battle appears to have emboldened the far right, a fact Boehner and his lieutenants have no doubt absorbed as they look ahead. Even if the speaker ignores the conservative faction of his caucus on the present issue, he will not have tamed this force. Bozell has no qualms about the heartburn he's caused for the GOP: “I could give a damn," he said. "I’m fed up with the Washington elites of both parties.”
The Tea Party Patriots runs on a bottom-up model, with hundreds of local coordinators joining a Sunday-evening web conference every week to decide strategy. Jenny Beth Martin, the group's national coordinator, doesn’t decide what positions the group will take; she puts the question to the local coordinators, who vote online. In this case, she said, the decision was nearly unanimous: “The position was, Don’t spend money on Obamacare — and don’t blink,” Martin said.
The group, she noted, has been working to refine its tactics since the disappointment of the 2012 election (during which, they maintain, Obamacare was never properly debated). Two books detailing Obama campaign tactics, The Audacity to Win, by 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe, and journalist Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab, have been assigned as reading.
The group commissioned a pollster to collect data and test messaging. That’s why, Martin says, you’ve heard such a consistent refrain from Tea Party activists when it comes to Obamacare: The message is about lost jobs, lost coverage, lost hours, with much less of the old, alienating rhetoric about creeping socialism or death panels.
Having hammered home the message that politicians would be punished for crossing the grassroots, the activists have a positive reinforcement to offer as well. Now that Republican leadership has followed their lead and (mostly) held the line, they’re being lavished with praise. “They have listened to the will of the people,” Martin says. “They are showing that in our government there is a check and a balance.” To those who argue that Obamacare is the law of the land, she argues, “We’ve pulled back from [demanding] full repeal. We understand that elections do have consequences. But the political reality today is that the American public voted to divide power in this country.”
With the government shut down, the message to House leaders from the Tea Party is: We’ve got your back. To those who argue that the Obamacare battle can’t be won, they have a ready answer: Look how far we’ve already come.
“It hasn’t happened yet, but the debate is now taking place on Obamacare, and that would not have happened but for us,” Bozell said. “The leaders of both houses were prepared to surrender unequivocally, but now they’re fighting on it, at least in the House.”