The Washington media was buzzing Wednesday after the leaders of the Tea Party Patriots came to town and announced that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) deserved a primary challenge, along with any other Republican who voted to raise the debt ceiling. Mark Meckler, a national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, told the Daily Beast that Boehner's deficit plan was "an embarrassment." At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast, Meckler declared Boehner's numbers "fake" and "phantom."
It was an interesting choice of words, since they might also describe the number of tea partiers Meckler and his co-coordinator, Jenny Beth Martin, claim to represent. In the news coverage, Tea Party Patriots has been consistently identified has having at least 3,500 local chapters, making it one of the largest tea party organizations in the country. But many of those chapters are, to use Meckler's term, phantom, which raises the question of whether the GOP House leadership should really be paying quite so much attention to the noise coming from the tea party leaders working the media circuit right now.
Last fall, the Washington Post’s Amy Gardner tried to verify the TPP’s numbers. She attempted to run down every one of its local chapters. Out of the 2,300 chapters TPP then claimed to have, Gardner could only identify 1,400; of those, she was only able to make contact with 647. Most had fewer than 50 members, and some consisted of a single person. That's a fraction of the 15 million people TPP's leaders often claim to represent when they're on the Hill demanding that Republicans refuse to increase the debt ceiling. Which raises the question of why, exactly, Republicans are taking them so seriously.
There are other reasons to question the wisdom of Republicans taking economic advice from national leaders of the Tea Party Patriots and other top tea partiers in the news this week. Consider the fact that before riding the tea party movement to national fame, Meckler was a high-ranking distributor for Herbalife, a company considered by many consumer groups and regulatory agencies to be a pyramid scheme. After that, he got into "affiliate marketing," an industry responsible for all of those "tiny belly" ads haunting the Internet that the FTC says are a scam. His colleague, Jenny Beth Martin, also doesn't have a great track financial record. In 2007, she and husband lost their house and ended up owing the IRS more than $500,000 in back taxes.
In print and TV interviews this week, Martin claimed that the majority of her members thought Boehner should be replaced as House speaker. The comments went viral and led to plenty of media coverage about tea party intransigence. It also prompted an outcry from tea party leaders working at the state level in the trenches, many of whom have disassociated with TPP because of displeasure with their tactics. Billie Tucker, the founder of the First Coast Tea Party and an influential tea party activist in Florida, fired off an email to Martin expressing her dismay at Martin's claim to represent the entire movement when talking about Boehner. She wrote:
Jenny Beth: Who the heck is giving you guys advice and pr help?
Calling for Boehner to resign did nothing but create more chaos in a chaotic time in our country. The media will and has run with it as if the entire tea party "membership" thinks Boehner should resign.
Boehner may not be doing the best job BUT…the timing of your statement caused me to have to answer to the press for it. Next time you plan to make such a big, hairy, audacious statement, why not let us in on it beforehand so we can prepare for the attacks and maybe your highly paid PR firm could give us talking points too.
Martin's comments didn’t even dovetail with those of activists at a tea party rally held on the Hill yesterday during the debt ceiling negotiations. Most of the speakers, from a variety of tea party groups, were calling on the Senate to get behind the Boehner plan and also to push the speaker to call for larger cuts.
The Republicans should also not be too concerned about the saber rattling of Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, despite his landing a coveted spot on the Washington Post's op-ed page on Thursday bashing Boehner. The Tennessee-based Phillips is essentially a tea party of one. He is a prodigious blogger and occasional radio host who's advocated such things as limiting voting to property owners and warning that WASPs are on the verge of extinction.
Few of the real tea party groups in his state will work with him because they see him as an opportunist. Last February, he borrowed $50,000 from a local businessman to help front the six-figure speaking fee for Sarah Palin to headline a tea party convention he organized in Nashville. Phillips charged attendees more than $500, prompting most of the larger tea party groups and even many within the state to boycott the event.
Last July Phillips tried again to host a tea party convention, this time in Las Vegas at the Palazzo Hotel. The event was first postponed to October and unltimately canceled entirely for lack of interest. Last week, the hotel sued Tea Party Nation for stiffing the hotel on more than $500,000 for the unused rooms he booked. Phillips, you could say, knows something about not paying the bills, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the kind of expert the GOP ought to be making policy around.
All of this is not to say there might not be a tea party movement out there poised to seek retribution should Republicans should they raise the debt ceiling. It's just that these particular folks you see on Fox News threatening to primary Boehner don't necessarily represent them.