Matthew Beach is the type of tea party voter political strategists of all stripes have a hard time understanding. Beach got off Wednesday afternoon from his job working on helicopters at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., and along with his wife, Jessie, got in his 1999 GMC pickup to drive overnight to Washington, where he arrived in time for Thursday's lunch-hour Tax Day at Freedom Plaza. Before he left home, Beach hand-lettered a sign for the event. It read: DISAPPOINT THE GOVERNMENT: BE RESPONSIBLE, SELF-RELIANT AND KIND.
In general, Beach believes the federal government spends too many tax dollars on too many things that are better done by local communities. “If you're responsible, self-reliant and kind, you don't need the government to provide for any of that,” he told me as we stood in brilliant sunlight not far from the White House. “I'm from Alabama, and if I have to look to Washington to take care of my neighbor, that's looking too far.”
I asked Beach, who is 34, how he voted in recent years. “I usually write in, because in the past decade I've been disappointed in the candidates on both sides” he said. In 2000, he voted for Colin Powell. In 2004, it was Powell again. In 2008, he wrote in a Ron Paul-Sarah Palin ticket.
If you can predict how Beach will vote in 2012, you deserve to be president.
The rally was the work of a group called Online Tax Revolt. The idea was to capture the interest of people all around the country who couldn't come to Washington to rally on a workday. Online participants were asked to pick an avatar — an Uncle Sam, a patriot in a tri-cornered hat, a doctor — and take part in a virtual march across the country to the nation's capital. Then everyone could go to the onlinetaxrevolt.com website and watch an actual rally on April 15.
Except you can't have a rally with a bunch of avatars. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that organizers realized that if they promised people they could watch a big Washington rally, then they would actually have to stage a big Washington rally. So they scrambled to put together Thursday's gathering. It was the perfect Internet media event, staged for the purpose of being webcast to the 272,607 people who signed up.
The theme was the federal deficit and out-of-control spending. “I have to pay my taxes today,” said a woman from Centreville, Va., who asked that her name not be used. “Between my husband and myself, we have to pay almost $16,000 in taxes, and he just does IT work and I do credit administration,” she said. “We thought we were doing OK … and we're getting killed.”
She blames Democrats and Republicans. “I say it all the time,” she told me. “George Bush opened the door for Barack Obama and the Democrats to walk in.”
Sarah Mahoney, an elegant retired Foreign Service officer from McLean, Va., seemed slightly amazed to find herself at a protest. “I'm one of those people that, 'That's no angry mob — that's my mom,'” she laughed. It was the second demonstration she had ever attended, the first being at the Capitol a few weeks ago when the Democratic health care bill passed. “I really want to help everybody who is uninsured, but the system they proposed just breaks the budget,” Mahoney said.
Being in downtown Washington, the Tea Party rally attracted the attention of passers-by who weren't exactly sympathetic to the cause. “I've got a good quote for you,” said Eamon Clifford, lead organizer for the International Union of Operating Engineers. “The tea party protest looks like America if America looks like the audience from the Porter Wagoner show.” (For the uninitiated, Wagoner was a 1960s country singer whose fans were mostly rural, white, and Southern.)
Clifford obviously had not met Mrs. Mahoney and many like her in the crowd. But he had a point when he complained about the prayer that was said before the rally. In it, the minister railed against “unconstitutional taxation” and declared that “Establishing justice and defending the borders are the only two legitimate functions of civil government.” Why not just give thanks for the beautiful day and pray for everyone's wisdom and welfare?
In the end, the rally was more evidence, if we needed it, of the volatility of 2010 politics. The Tea Partiers are unhappy, highly motivated, and, like Matthew Beach, not entirely predictable when it comes to voting. November could be a wild ride.
Byron York, the Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on ExaminerPolitics.com.