They spoke to me about the downfall of America, with fear burning in their eyes. It was vintage "tea party" talk.
C.A. Alexander, a businessman who looks like an airline pilot, said: "We're just feeling helpless. I get paranoid about the future of our country." Ralph Leatherman, a worker in bib overalls, said: "Our country's gone. It's just gone." Orville Capes, a plumber, lamented, "We're losing this country without fighting the battle." But they agreed it was time to fight hard and take the country back. As retired Navy vet R.W. Phillips said: "I never wanted to be a protester or activist or political person. The system has forced me to become everything I didn't want to be."
Well, guess what: Those fed-up folks were all planning to vote for a third-party candidate named Ross Perot. I conducted those interviews in 1992.
In other words, there is nothing particularly novel about the "tea partyers" who this past weekend staged their first national convention. For nearly 200 years, grassroots populist anger -- directed at Washington, Wall Street, the elites in general -- has flared up and flamed out. Most of the time, the anger begets a movement, which in turn becomes co-opted by the two major parties, or simply implodes from within.
It's too soon to say whether the diffuse and leaderless tea partyers will play a significant role in the 2010 congressional races.
That may well happen; the movement is currently in its flare-up phase.
On the other hand, the movement has more cliques than a high school, and the infighting is already fierce. As Jim Knapp, a prominent tea-party activist, remarked on CNN the other day: "I don't think the tea party knows what's happening to the tea party." The tea partyers' angst is sincere, and their panic is real.
But Perot's populists had similar sentiments, and we all know what happened there. Perot drew 19 percent of the vote in '92, mostly from voters fed up with the two major parties (especially the incumbent Republicans). Then he created the Reform Party. The party devolved so badly that in 2000, after years of internecine warfare, it wound up putting Pat Buchanan on the ballot, thereby trimming its vote share to 0.4 percent.
Could the tea partyers create a political party? Heck, at this point they can't even agree on a hotel party.
A group called Tea Party Nation sponsored the first-ever convention, at a swank Nashville hotel. The problem was that Tea Party Nation was charging a $549 admission fee, and cash-strapped tea partyers felt this exploitive policy violated the principle of fiscal conservatism. (They also deemed it tacky that keynoter Sarah Palin was reportedly paid more than $100,000.) But the biggest problem is that Tea Party Nation doesn't even speak for the movement.
Nobody does. Not Tea Party Patriots or Tea Party Emporium. Not Tea Party Express or National Precinct Alliance. Not Campaign for Liberty or FreedomWorks. Not American Majority or American Liberty Alliance. Somebody should put numbers on their uniforms and give us a scorecard, although I did determine that American Liberty Alliance and America Majority reneged on their agreements to sponsor the convention with Tea Party Nation -- which is publicly lamenting "the divisions that are already hurting this movement."
Some of those groups, as well as hundreds of local groups, are genuinely bottom up. But some of those groups are top down -- in other words, they're fake grassroots. They're "Astroturf" groups fronting for big business and the Republican Party.
FreedomWorks is a Washington operation run by ex-GOP House insider Dick Armey, who is bankrolled by his corporate clients. Tea Party Express is run by a pair of veteran Republican strategists, who reportedly have steered tea-party donations into their consulting firm -- thus prompting some Tea Party Patriots to assail Tea Party Express as "the Astroturf Express."
On paper, the GOP seems well-positioned to benefit from tea-party ire, since the incumbent Democrats are stuck with the budget deficit and the downside of governance in tough times. But tea-party populism is more nuanced than that. Some of the grassroots anger is directed at Wall Street and the big banks, and the GOP -- as the party of big business -- has long been perceived as being in bed with both.
Tea partyers typically rail, in somewhat scattershot fashion, against "special-interest money," and they identify many of these interests (particularly the corporate variety) with the GOP. When establishment Republicans cheered the recent Supreme Court ruling that freed up corporate political spending, tea partyers denounced it.
Clearly, there's little baseline for the Republicans who hope to capture the movement. Shane Brooks, a Texas-based tea-party activist recently posted some advice to his brethren in a YouTube video: "We must not allow the tea parties ... to be hijacked by the GOP."
Kevin Smith, a Nashville-based activist, recently lamented online that the movement could be "co-opted by mainstream Republican demagogues determined to use this as their 2010 election platform."
So what do these folks like, anyway? It's a cinch to see what they're against (big government, big deficits, big banks, big corporations, both major parties, and often other tea partyers). It's tougher to see what they're for (perhaps a kinder, gentler America that may or may not have existed). And that's the rub. A populist movement needs an affirmative agenda; otherwise, the fire generally tends to flicker out.
As one disgruntled gent put it, "There's so many people out there looking for something, but they're not sure what it is they're looking for." So said Perot voter Ray Harbin, when he and I conversed 18 years ago.
Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.