JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 16, 2010
This afternoon more than 500 Tea Party activists descended on Washington, D.C., from the likes of Raleigh, Valley Forge, and Virginia Beach—with the largest contingent hailing from New Jersey. They had been invited by a right-wing group called Americans for Prosperity (AFP), and the plan was to “protest the lame-duck session” by attending a rally headlined by Michele Bachmann, Jim DeMint, and Mike Pence (which turned out to be a snoozer) and then hit the halls of Congress to “knock on doors”—demanding, furiously, that their representatives not betray the principles of the Tea Party which has just won an election. Prominent on their list was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Contrary to popular belief, it is not the liberal state of New Jersey!” explained Steve Lonegan, AFP’s regional director, who was once mayor of Bogota, New Jersey, and a right-wing primary challenger to Governor Chris Christie. Sporting a dark, tailored suit and black sunglasses, Lonegan led a tri-state delegation decked out in patriotic apparel to McConnell's office. “It’s going to be very interesting to see how these Republicans conduct themselves now,” he said. “They’re willing to compromise if the Tea Party movement doesn’t hold them accountable.”
The crowd of 50-plus arrived unannounced, to the chagrin of McConnell's staff, just moments before the senator was scheduled to speak on the floor of the Senate. Three harried staffers tried to assuage the raucous assembly, politely encouraging them to sign the guestbook or grab a gallery pass to watch the Senate in action. “Don’t go to the gallery!” Lonegan yelled above the staffers’ admonitions. “That’s a complete waste of time. We’ll get his chief of staff out here.”
An aide apologized: “I’m so sorry everyone, but we’re very busy today and it’s hard to do our jobs with all of you in here, talking so loudly. We can’t even answer our phones.” Yet the mob's irritation only increased. “Please keep the door clear!" begged another aide. Like besieged babysitters, they ended up turning on the television so the Tea Partiers could watch McConnell's opening remarks.
As it happens, at just that moment, McConnell was doing a dramatic about-face, pledging that he would support a moratorium on earmarks during the next Congress. In other words, on a policy issue, he was giving the Tea Partiers exactly what they wanted.
But the tri-state delegation was not appeased. “Hey folks—Mr. McConnell’s staff has no time for you today,” sneered an angry Lonegan, prompting murmurs of disappointment and confusion to circulate through the crowd. “I’m shocked. The fact that these people got on buses at 5 a.m. or drove overnight doesn’t seem to matter. It’s foolish to tell these people to come back another time.”
“This is unfortunate for the Senator,” he predicted. “We’ve gotten better treatment at the hands of Democrats.”