A tea party in the GOP den, but no public embrace | NevadaAppeal.com

A tea party in the GOP den, but no public embrace

Dana Milbank
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON – Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele treated tea party leaders like an ugly date: They were good enough to take upstairs, but not good enough to be seen with in public.

Steele invited leaders of the conservative movement to the GOP’s Capitol Hill headquarters (to the adjacent National Republican Club, technically) for a private meeting Tuesday afternoon on the third floor. But Republican leaders, probably wary of TV footage showing a tea party takeover of RNC headquarters, denied the activists’ request to use the facility for the news conference they had planned to have after the meeting with Steele.

The tea partiers were out in the cold – 22 degrees with the wind chill, to be exact. They would have to hold their news conference, sans Steele, on the sidewalk on First Street SE, across from the Capitol South Metro entrance. Steele was nowhere to be seen.

The moment perfectly encapsulated the Republican Party’s dilemma as it tries to harness the considerable energy of the tea party movement. Steele’s task is essentially to co-opt the movement’s leaders, keeping them from forming a third party that could hurt GOP chances in 2010 and 2012. Yet, at the same time, he can’t appear to the rest of the country to be embracing a movement known for extremist words and deeds.

After the meeting, Steele could walk back to the Republican headquarters through a third-floor bridge connecting the two buildings. Activists had to go out into the frigid evening to talk to the group of shivering camera crews and reporters, or at least those who hadn’t given up and left.

“This is not where the solutions lie,” reported Lisa Miller, a Washington area tea party activist who left before the meeting ended. Miller, a Republican, said that “right now I am disappointed with my own party.” Steele was “congenial” enough, she said, but not about to co-opt her fellow activists. “I have every faith that they will remain independent,” she said. By the end of her brief statement to the media, she was shaking from the cold.

Not since Victorian times has an afternoon tea been fraught with as many etiquette considerations as Steele’s session with the tea party activists.

First, there were the usual manners for participants to keep in mind in the meeting. Would they remember to hold the cup handle with their fingers – don’t loop your fingers through the handle! – and tilt the pinkie slightly up for balance? Would they remember to introduce the milk to the tea from south to north, not stirring it in a circular motion? Would they remember to take delicate bites of their cucumber sandwiches and smile between nibbles?

On top of all this, layered like jam atop a buttered scone, was another group of protocol concerns. Would Steele be able to woo the tea party leaders without appearing to the world to endorse them? And could tea party leaders make nice with the Republican Party without causing their followers to think the movement had sold out to the establishment?

The RNC solved the pinkie-raising problem by serving soft drinks and cookies. The second set of problems won’t be as easy to solve.

Highlighting the stakes, Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston issued a bulletin Tuesday saying that Las Vegas lawyer Barry Levinson, secretary of the Tea Party of Nevada, was serious about fielding a third-party candidate in that state’s Senate race this year. A third party in the race could divide conservative voters, perhaps allowing embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) to sneak to re-election.

Steele has not been good at subtlety in the past. As a GOP Senate candidate in Maryland a few years ago, he had a lunch with reporters during which he trashed President George W. Bush and the Republican Party but asked that his name not be used. This only drew more attention to the lunch, and Steele finally outed himself.

In his inimitable style, Steele tried to identify with the tea party movement in a radio interview last month. “Guess what? I’m a Tea Partier, I’m a town haller, I’m a grass-roots-er,” he said.

Steele a tea partier? Probably only in the high-tea-at-Claridge’s sense. He’s a natty dresser with monogrammed shirts and French cuffs. But the tea party activists are more of a low-tea crowd, so their appearance at the National Republican Club, also known as the Capitol Hill Club, was a bit out of character.

The club is a place for Oysters Rockefeller and pictures of Eisenhower, not tricorn hats and Don’t-Tread-on-Me flags. Gentlemen are asked to wear coats and ties in the main dining room, and coats with sport shirts elsewhere. “Current trends dictate the acceptability of ladies’ high-fashion attire,” the club rules state.

The 50 activists arrived at 3:45 p.m. for a meeting that was scheduled to last an hour. When nothing had happened by 5 p.m., the camera crews began to depart. “We’re going to need a light,” one of the cameramen observed as the sun set. At 6 p.m., the crews and reporters had retreated to their cars to wait. By 6:30 p.m., only one cameraman stood outside the Capitol Hill Club. At 7:30, RNC officials reported that the meeting was still going strong. Steele promised to take every question.

The tea-party activists had missed any chance of having their visit to the RNC make the evening newscasts – an outcome that probably didn’t disappoint Chairman Steele one bit.