What Is the Tea Party? A Growing State of Mind

"We've been running deficits for years, and we've been saying we're doing it to win the Cold War or to fight terrorism and fight poverty," says Michael Towns, 33, a linguist from Tallahassee who was among those surveyed. "I think our Founding Fathers are rolling in their graves because they never would conceive that we would do this."

"This country was actually founded that we worked to be represented without taxation," says Charlene Barber, 62, a nurse from West Blocton, Ala., who is pursuing a psychology degree. "I'd love to hear what the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Constitution would have to say about this health care bill."

Diverse Inspirations

Question: Who is most responsible for the Tea Party?

Answer: Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Obama's ambitious agenda — the most activist of any Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson nearly a half-century ago — created a backlash. Not yet at the midpoint of his term, Obama has bailed out General Motors and Chrysler, won funding for an $862 billion stimulus bill, overhauled the health care system and pushed legislation that would rewrite financial regulations.

Within eight months of his inauguration, a majority of Americans said his proposals called for too much expansion of government power. Six in 10 said they called for too much government spending.

The backlash has significantly increased the number of voters who call themselves conservative. Although 37% of Americans described themselves as conservatives in 2008, according to combined Gallup polls for the year, now 42% do. That's the most since Gallup began asking the question about political ideology in 1992.

The growing conservatism hasn't rebounded to the benefit of the Republican Party, however: 28% of Americans identified themselves as Republicans in 2008; 28% do so now. In 2004, the year Bush was re-elected president, 34% did.

Some Tea Party supporters who might have moved back toward the GOP express disappointment with Bush's backing of the Wall Street bailout and Medicare prescription-drug initiative.

They describe those as just more big-government programs that blurred the differences between the two major political parties.

"Basically, Democrats and Republicans are screwed up, and the Tea Party is the only group that has their act together," says Greg White, 23, an Army soldier from Ashburn, Ga. "Democrats are trying to be Socialist, and the Republicans aren't far off."

"The Tea Party is trying to change the country around because the Republicans and Democrats — I don't think anyone knows what they're doing in Washington anymore," says Ed Bradley, 54, a retired police officer and judge from Lebanon, Ind. "The Tea Party is trying to change this country to what it used to be."

For right-of-center voters alarmed by Obama's agenda but disenchanted with Bush's GOP, the outburst by CNBC's Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago mercantile exchange in February 2009 calling for a "Chicago Tea Party" for "the capitalists out there" struck a nerve.

The Tea Party was born.

Retired high school teacher Sagray says he was intrigued when he drove by Tea Party protesters outside a shopping mall, holding up signs urging drivers unhappy with the proposed health care bill to honk. He parked, picked up literature and signed up for e-mail alerts.

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