Tea Party Supporters Debate Movement's Direction

Morning Edition is taking a closer look at the groups that make up the Tea Party. Steve Inskeep talks to Toby Marie Walker, lead facilitator for the Waco Tea Party, and Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association. Walker says the Tea Party's issues need to remain strictly fiscal. Fischer says that if the Tea Party doesn't incorporate social issues into its agenda, it runs the risk of dividing the conservative movement.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We are looking more closely at the Tea Party movement during this week when it scored a surprising Senate win. We're asking who they are and who pays the bills. And this morning, we'll dip into the debate over what the Tea Party stands for. The T in Tea Party stands for Taxed Enough Already. That suggests a movement against big government. But some social conservatives push for their issues, too, and today, we'll hear two perspectives. Bryan Fischer works on public policy at the American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi. And Toby Marie Walker is cofounder and president of the Waco Tea Party in Waco, Texas.

Ms. Walker, I want to start with you because you're actively coordinating rallies and so forth. What do you do to focus Tea Party activities on particular issues, and what issues do you want to focus on?

Ms. TOBY MARIE WALKER: (Cofounder and President, Waco Tea Party): Well, we focus around three main issues, is constitutionally limited government, free markets and fiscal responsibility. A litmus test that we use is about taxes or spending, and we focus on those issues because that's what we were founded under.

INSKEEP: When you are holding some kind of meeting or rally, are you up there at the front saying ladies and gentlemen, let me just remind you what this is about and what it's not about?

Ms. WALKER: Usually, we don't have to do that. Beforehand, we do put it out, we do put it on our website that this is what the theme of the rally is, and, you know, we're not the sign police, but we ask people to keep it family friendly. And you know, if they show up with a sign about a topic that's off topic, we don't ask them to remove it, but most people around here, they're pretty cooperative.

INSKEEP: Well, let me bring Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association into our discussion here from Mississippi. And Mr. Fischer, what issues have you pressed when you became involved in the Tea Party movement?

Mr. BRYAN FISCHER (Public Policy, American Family Association): Well, the American Family Association, part of why we got involved in this is we believe the country needs not only to be called back to constitutional government, not only back to physical responsibility, but also to the same cultural and social values that were embraced by the founders.

INSKEEP: What cultural and social values are you thinking of that were embraced by the founders, as you put it?

Mr. FISCHER: They said that the first of the inalienable rights that was granted to us by the creator is the right to life. So we believe sanctity of life has got to be central to any genuinely conservative movement, belief in a creator and to defending natural marriage and resisting homosexual agenda.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask you both: What kinds of discussions have there been? And let's grant that this is a very wide, nationwide movement with lots of voices. But what kinds of discussions have you followed or been involved in on this question of how deeply involved in social issues the Tea Party movement should be?

Ms. WALKER: Well, here in Waco - and I know most of the national groups, we don't touch on the social issues. And the reason that we don't is because right now, the Tea Party is about the economy. And while the social issues on a personal level are important to a lot of our members, we stay away from those issues because they're so divisive. We believe that those are other groups and we applaud them, and when people ask about pro-life issues, we send them over to Pro-Life Waco or some of the other groups. Of if it's a gun issue, we send them to the NRA or Gun Owners of America. We keep it about the taxes and the spending and the overreach of the government.

INSKEEP: Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, what do you make of that?

Mr. FISCHER: Well, I like what Toby is saying, that as a leader in the Tea Party movement, they support those values and that's what we think is important. The thing that concerns us is if you have leaders in the Tea Party movement that start rejecting those views, that's the thing that would concern us, because then you no longer have a holistic conservative view.

INSKEEP: And I suppose that the Tea Party were in some way to affect the composition of Congress in this November's election, you would not necessarily be able to claim a mandate for your issues, would you?

Mr. FISCHER: Well, it depends. You know, the people that are providing the grassroots energy for the Tea Party movement, they are social conservatives. If they start getting a signal from leaders in the Tea Party movement or from Republicans or conservatives and Congress that they are going to reject those issues, they're going to reject those values, then the Tea Party movement is going to lose a lot of its energy because most of it is supplied by people who are not just fiscal conservatives, but social conservatives as well.

INSKEEP: Toby Marie Walker, is that right? These are issues you want to have addressed, just not during the campaign?

Ms. WALKER: I think that the Tea Party movement is more of a Libertarian movement. I think that that's one of the things that has been like a myth out there, that it's a Republican-based. But not all of us are Libertarians. You know, we have Republicans, Democrats, independents, all over the spectrum. And that's why we stick to the issues that brought us together. It would be like asking the NRA to take up an abortion issue. That's not what the NRA is about. They're about gun rights.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you both: How intense has the struggle or the debate been over what the Tea Party should stand for?

Mr. FISCHER: You know, for myself, I don't think it's been than intense because I think a lot of people in the Tea Party movement do not realize that the leadership of the Tea Party movement is at a fundamentally different place than they are when it comes to social issues. And that's why I think the Tea Party movement is no longer they're not going to be able to claim the mantle of the founding fathers unless they affirm that morality and religion are indispensible supports of political prosperity.

Ms. WALKER: Steve, I'm going to disagree there, because we don't demand that upon NRA. We do not demand that upon other civic groups or other issue-based groups. You know, I'm Catholic, I'm a Christian, I believe in the sanctity of life, but I don't bring that into the Tea Party because that's not what we're about. You know, we do say a prayer before our meetings. We do honor the flag. But I don't think that bringing these social issues in is a must to be viable.

Mr. FISCHER: Well, again, I would say, Steve, I don't expect the Tea Party movement to make social issues front and center in their agenda. I understand that. But I think if the Tea Party movement ever sends a signal that the gay agenda is OK with them, that same-sex marriage is OK with them, that abortion is OK with them, the energy's going to bleed out of the movement because that's not where the rank-and-file are that make up the Tea Party movement at the grassroots level.

Ms. WALKER: Well, I think if we'd go either way. I don't think we should go out there and espouse the social issues because the smaller percentage of people in the movement who might be more leaning towards pro-choice or leaning towards gun control, that's why they like the Tea Parties. That's why they don't really like to political parties, is because they can come in, they can talk about their concern without being judged and without being told that they're wrong or that they're right.

Mr. FISCHER: When I look at the issue of life, for instance, you cannot be a constitutionalist, you cannot be committed to a constitutional view of political philosophy and not be committed to the sanctity of life. Now I appreciate Toby wanting to keep that 10 to 20 percent that maybe are libertarian on same-sex marriage, maybe they are libertarian on abortion. I understand their desire to keep those people in the fold, but if they don't send a clear note on the culture of conservative issues, you know, they may save that 10 to 20 percent at the risk of losing the 80 to 90 percent.

INSKEEP: Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, which has been involved in Tea Party-related activities since last year. Mr. Fischer, thanks very much.

Mr. FISCHER: You're welcome. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And we also heard from Toby Marie Walker, cofounder and president of the Waco Tea Party in Waco, Texas. Thanks to you.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: And tomorrow, we'll ask where some of the Tea Party money comes from.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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