By DOUGLAS A. BLACKMON And JENNIFER LEVITZ, WSJ
The agreement to cut deficits and raise the debt ceiling hammered together in Washington caps a remarkable two-year surge by the tea-party movement—forcing Republicans and Democrats alike to refocus on spending and, at the same time, proving the political power of the tea party.
Yet, a chorus of tea-party activists and leaders across the country denounced the agreement on Monday, saying it included little in the way of the change they actually sought.
"People are saying, 'These tea partiers, aren't they wonderful, they are changing the conversation,'" said Ellen Gilmore, a leader of the LaGrange Tea Party Patriots in Georgia. "Well, we got absolutely squat—except for the conversation."
The reaction of tea-party activists to what most political observers perceive to be their greatest victory so far underscores the paradox of the movement. By using the debt ceiling as a lever, their minority bloc in the House of Representatives pushed Republicans into a defiant no-new-taxes position and erected a bulwark to federal spending.
"There is literally nothing happening politically in this country, from city councils to the presidential election, that is not driven by tea-party talking points," said Mark Meckler, a founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella group which says it is affiliated with 3,500 local organizations.
However, the deal struck Sunday falls far short of many tea-party groups' stated goals of no increase in the debt ceiling, vastly larger budget cuts and passage of a balanced-budget amendment. The central question facing the loose-knit tea-party movement today, two years after it sprang into existence, is whether its organization and leadership can grow to match its ideological force.
The movement remains a rough-and-tumble coalition of groups and individuals, without a clear national leader or central organization. It has splintered repeatedly around personalities, tactics and a struggle between social and fiscal conservatives.
And some of the movement's early foot soldiers—those whose enthusiasm two years ago helped propel the movement onto the national stage—have grown disillusioned. "All the protests, the organization, the fundraising, the block-walking, has it done anything? Are we better off than we were two years ago? I say 'No,'" says Dan Blackford, who until earlier this year led a tea-party chapter in suburban Houston.
Contradictions within the movement are evident in some parts of the country where the tea party was red hot a year ago, including Texas. Activity remains strong in many parts of the state. In July in Houston, more than 300 people jammed into a stuffy meeting room in a downtown Houston hotel for a day of impassioned strategizing organized by FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C., libertarian group that claims hundreds of thousands of registered supporters nationwide.
And in Dallas, Katrina Pierson sits on the steering committee of the sprawling Dallas Tea Party, which claims 24,000 members statewide. "There is no doubt that the movement is stronger and growing," says Ms. Pierson.
In some other parts of the state, though, there is bickering and disillusionment among onetime leaders. At the Blackfords' two-story condo, the boxes of tea party "Don't Tread on Me" flags are gone from the living room because the couple no longer believes in the movement. The Blackfords came to believe the tea party was being co-opted by other conservative groups and the mainstream Republican Party to gain power, without truly embracing the movement's focus on cutting federal spending.
Similarly in the state's panhandle section, Tony Corsaut, a 50-year-old small-business owner and father of four, stepped down from the Wichita Falls Tea Party that he founded in 2009. The movement was losing focus, he says, by straying into issues such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Many Texas activists are divided over who to support for the seat of Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who is retiring. FreedomWorks and some local groups have endorsed Ted Cruz, a fiscal conservative and a former state solicitor general. Other activists are irritated that a national group has jumped into the Texas fray and is pushing for State Sen. Dan Patrick, an anti-abortion campaigner and founder of a tea-party caucus in the state legislature.
The divided picture is similar across the U.S. While tea-party groups have had success in running candidates for local offices and Republican party positions in some areas, activism has faded dramatically in other hotbeds of 2010.
It's particularly true in states like Delaware, Alaska and Nevada where high-profile tea-party candidates for the U.S. Senate flamed out in the 2010 elections. "Delaware and Alaska are still in disarray; it's almost a dead zone for us," said Shelby Blakely, a spokeswoman for the Tea Party Patriots, which focuses on lower taxes and spending and eschews social issues such as abortion.
Polling suggests that support for the tea party among U.S. voters has slipped. In the most recent national survey conducted by The Wall Street Journal and NBC News in July, the share of Americans calling themselves supporters of the movement declined to 25%, from 30% around last fall's election.
Leaders of various tea-party national groups have begun sniping at each other. In a recent interview, Mr. Meckler of Tea Party Patriots said Tea Party Express, a political action committee that raised millions of dollars for conservative candidates in 2010, was "formed to make money off the tea party" and "is an organization that is preying on the tea-party movement." He calls Tea Party Nation, a social-networking site, a "fringe group."
In separate interviews, the leaders of those groups fired back. Sal Russo, one of the founders of Tea Party Express, says Tea Party Patriots can't be believed: "They speak with forked tongue."
Far from the spirited rallies that drew tens of thousands to state capitols and Washington in 2009 and 2010, many tea-party events in recent months, from South Carolina to Denver, have been lackluster affairs. A "Freedom Jamboree" planned for this fall by a tea-party leader in Georgia and once expected to attract thousands of activists was canceled in July for lack of interest.
On his website, organizer William Temple lashed out at other groups for failing to support the effort. "If anyone in our movement has a plan or direction that can unite the movement again…please take the reins!" Mr. Temple wrote in mid-July.
In Texas, the Blackfords joined the movement in April 2009 partly because they were angry with both Democrats and Republicans for the bailouts for auto companies and financial institutions. "Where was my bailout?" said Mr. Blackford. "No one said, 'Hey, Dan, look, I know you're carrying $10,000 in credit-card debt. I'll pay that.'"
Soon they were organizing bus rides to rallies at the Texas state capitol and delivering patriotic decorations and U.S. Constitution-themed coloring books to tea-party events. "It was really simple: Rein in spending, less government control and just good fiscal practices," says Mr. Blackford.
By that fall, he and his wife were running the San Jacinto Tea Party, which had 1,000 members on its email list and drew more than 100 people to regular meetings.
In last November's elections, the San Jacinto Tea Party failed to unseat two Texas U.S. representatives, both Democrats. Still, the Blackfords' group was elated at what had happened nationally. The tea-party movement had powered a Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in spite of suffering high-profile losses in some states.
The Blackfords' frustration began in part after Texas Republicans formed a tea-party caucus in the state legislature. Instead of zeroing in on budget issues, the caucus chairman, Republican Sen. Patrick, kicked off the session by successfully pushing a bill requiring women to undergo a sonogram before getting an abortion.
A vocal contingent within the Tea Party Patriots network wanted to tackle social issues from gays in the military to gay marriage. "The social issues were very divisive," says Mr. Blackford.
Attendance fell off at San Jacinto Tea Party meetings. The Blackfords asked if anyone wanted to take over as leaders. No one stepped up, recalls Byron Schirmbeck, an active member. "It was like the steam had gone out," he says.
The Blackfords decided to look for another way to be politically active. In April, the couple stepped down from the group, legally disbanded it, and hauled 15 boxes of tea-party paraphernalia to a storage unit.
The debt agreement this week left Mr. Blackford more disillusioned than ever with the movement. He said the terms of the deal prove that many Republicans have courted the movement and "ridden the tea-party wave" without truly adopting its values.
Despite their disappointment, though, there's little evidence that tea-party leaders or activists are looking to become a more centralized force—partly out of fear that the movement could be more easily co-opted by the Washington establishment they despise. Many say the movement's decentralized structure, while sometimes messy, is deliberate and part of its strength.
Major tea-party groups stuck to their guns Monday, denouncing the debt-ceiling deal and calling for their allies in Congress to vote against it. When the house voted to approve the bill, nearly half of the 60 tea-party caucus members, including its leader, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, voted against the agreement.
Activists and national tea-party leaders said Monday they would use the heartburn over the debt deal to galvanize the movement for the 2012 vote. "We've altered this debate," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks.
Jenny Beth Martin, another founder of Tea Party Patriots, said the movement never believed it could fulfill all its goals after just one major election victory. "We had no delusions of grandeur that…we were going to go into Congress and everything was going to change," Ms. Martin said, adding: "You're going to see much more radical results in the 2012 election."
Tea-party groups said it's inevitable that some activists get worn out—especially after a hard-fought victory like the 2010 election. A case in point: Tea Party Patriots says other tea-party groups in Houston have launched since the one led by the Blackfords dissolved.
Some tea-party supporters say the rancor generated by the debt-ceiling clash is in fact providing them with a shot of new energy. "I was looking for something to get the tea party active," said Mr. Temple, the Georgia activist. "I've already got all sorts of tea-party people emailing me saying, 'Let's get on the buses.'"