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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

After Tea time, who wins?

Inland Northwest Democrats who belittle the Tea Party gatherings of last Wednesday do so at their peril.

Inland Northwest Republicans who embrace them wholeheartedly could be in for a few surprises.

In terms of number of venues and total participants, the demonstrations outstripped any protests in recent history.

The Spokane event may not have been significantly larger than the city’s biggest Iraq War protest in 2003. But even if both attracted between 2,000 and 3,000 people – crowd estimates are extremely difficult and notoriously unreliable, so there’s no sense even debating which had more people – it’s important to remember that Wednesday’s Tea Party in Spokane was one of about a dozen within a two-hour drive.

There may have been another 1,000 over time in Coeur d’Alene’s city park, plus gatherings in Colville and Colfax, Priest River and Moscow. If total numbers count...

...Tea Partiers win.

So what? some Democrats have sniffed, rather derisively. When you have Fox News and talk radio and conservative Web sites flogging an event, of course people will turn out. These Tea Partiers who protest taxes don’t seem to understand that taxes for the vast majority of the public will go down if President Obama gets his way, other Democrats added.

This is a mistake Democrats often make, countering an emotional argument with a process-based response. The fact is that a certain segment of the public was fed up enough last Wednesday to skip lunch, leave work early or have dinner late so they could cheer speakers, shake fists or wave signs in protest.

But the real question for Republicans is: Protest what?

The first Tea Parties earlier this year were conceived as a protest against federal bailouts and deficit spending. They wanted to evoke one of the few images grade schoolers remember from their American history book, that a bunch of colonists got to dress up like Indians, jump aboard a British ship and dump stuff into Boston Harbor in 1773. Liberals and progressives, proving again the propensity to counter emotion with process, delighted in pointing out that the colonists were rebelling against taxation without representation, while the Tea Partiers seemed to be rebelling against just the opposite: taxation with representation. As if that couldn’t be tyranny too.

By Tea time Wednesday, the parties had become a merge point for a wide range of grievances that protesters wanted to redressed through their peaceable assembly. Government spending was high on the list, but some were against all taxes, others were against the income tax. A few signs suggested “tax the millionaires” which, interestingly enough, is sort of what Obama is proposing.

The Federal Reserve came in for criticism, as did paper money, and at least one speaker held forth on the virtues of the gold standard. Any suggestion of gun control was met with derision, so were most mentions of bank executives, multinational corporations, international treaties, AIG, politicians or bureaucrats.

The Stars and Stripes were much on display, but so too were several versions of the Gadsden Flag, with its coiled rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan. And there were a few rugged individualists with the obligatory “Where is John Galt?” signs. (Note to liberals: That’s from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” but if you have to ask, there’s not enough space to explain it.)

More than anything else, the Tea Parties showed a wide range of dissatisfaction with “the way things are.” For out-of-power Republicans, the challenge will be uniting as much of this disparate dissatisfaction as possible into a cohesive voting bloc. How can they let the gold-standard bearers talk about eliminating the Fed before Main Street business types walk? Can they navigate a course between international trade the region’s farmers need and the parts of NAFTA and CAFTA some populists despise? Can they make a case that the deficit spending a Democratic White House and Congress is practicing now is philosophically different than the deficit spending a Republican White House and Congress executed before them?

If not, they may split the “loyal opposition” with the Libertarians, the Constitutional Party, the Reform Party or another party that surfaces in the next few years.

Toward the end of the Spokane rally, Rick Melanson, a long-time Spokane political observer and sometime activist, looked out over the crowd and talked about what it most reminded him of. Did it feel like the rallies for independent candidate Ross Perot in 1992? Or like the coalescing of conservatives around Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994?

That truly is the question for Republicans. Perot split their vote in 1992, and helped elect Bill Clinton. Gingrich solidified their vote two years later, and gave them the House of Representatives for the first time in a generation.

The Spokesman-Review's political team keeps a critical eye on local, state and national politics.