In September 2009, thousands of conservatives traveled to Washington to march in protest of ObamaCare, which was being crafted by the White House and Democrats in Congress. On posters, Obama was depicted as Hitler and the Joker. The tea party was in full force, and "don't tread on me" became a thing.
The next year, thousands of tea party lovers returned to the capital for a rally hosted by the right-wing conspiracist Glenn Beck. There were flags, signs, and plenty of anti-Obama rhetoric to go around.
Now, on the first day of a big Supreme Court case that could help shape not only President Obama's health care law but a much more important matter, the election, demonstrators are marching in front of the court's steps — but those are the pro-Obama protesters.
The tea party demonstrators, maybe a couple dozen but not much more than that, have a handful of signs and a couple of standard chants. Yet they clearly are outnumbered by the Obamacare fans and have had to wait for lulls in the other side's agenda to creep into the spotlight.
The demonstrators were claiming real estate outside the courtroom early Monday morning.
"We love Obamacare," chanted those who loved Obamacare.
The scrappy tea partiers edited that into, "We love the Constitution," and tried to match the liberal forces in rhythm and volume.
Almost every time, they were unsuccessful.
What happened to the tea party that hated Obamacare so much? In states that have had their primaries, conservative voters still respond favorably to every Republican candidate when they say they'll repeal the health care law. And polling shows that the divide between Obamacare supporters and foes hasn't been bridged.
Jenny Beth Martin, the cofounder and coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, stood outside the courtroom steps yesterday among her conservative friends with an American flag in her back pocket. She said the economy has dragged down so much that the tea party members who flew, drove or hitched a ride to Washington in previous years can no longer afford to come down for any old protest, even if it is one linked to their biggest fear: Obamacare.
"I do think the enthusiasm is still there," Martin said.
Kevin Mooneyhan, another activist with the Tea Party Patriots, said tea party members are passionate about constitutional issues but wouldn't be able to make a palpable difference with the nine justices who will rule on the health care law's legality.
"You don't see a huge tea party protest here is because this is the Supreme Court," Mooneyhan said. "There's not much that they can do to influence how the court rules."
Rick Santorum either thought differently or saw a good photo opportunity; the GOP primary second-place-runner pulled up to the steps in the afternoon to talk about Mitt Romney's health care law in Massachusetts and handle a few questions. While he spoke, Obama supporters who lined up around him chanted "health care is a right" and "the ACA is here to stay."
A few demonstrators who ostensibly like Santorum, who has leaned on the tea party for support in his battle for the nomination, let their voices be heard, too. One small boy who sat on his dad's shoulders screamed, "We love Rick!"
He was waving a sign that read "Don't Believe the Liberal Media!", a message with which Santorum would surely agree after crusading against a New York Times reporter who confronted him over a claim the candidate made against Romney.
A conservative rally led by the Koch brothers-funded group Americans for Prosperity is planned for today, as the court hears arguments on whether the so-called individual mandate is constitutional. Michele Bachmann and other members of Congress also plan to speak in the morning.
Maybe the tea party will have a more forceful showing then.
As Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine noted as he left the courtroom on Monday, "Tomorrow's a big day."