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A tale of two political conferences
This weekend in Minnesota, the Tea Party shined at the RightOnline conference. Nearby, Netroots Nation unraveled  
 
Edward Morrissey
Edward Morrissey

Many analysts have spent the last two years discounting the Tea Party. First, most assumed that the gimmicky nature of its identity would cause the movement to lose cohesion after the first Tax Day rallies in 2009. When it grew in strength for Independence Day protests, and then got gale-force tailwinds during the ObamaCare debate, the commentariat insisted that ad-hoc grassroots movements are historically short-lived, and that the Tea Party would be no exception. After the midterm election switched 63 seats in the House, and six in the Senate — the largest midterm shift in 72 years — many again predicted the death of the Tea Party movement, this time as a supposed victim of the success few had predicted.  

If this past weekend in Minneapolis gives any indication, the analysts are in no danger of losing their perfect track record of spot-on predictions. Americans for Prosperity conducted its fourth annual RightOnline conference, which gathers grassroots conservatives from across the nation to teach them to organize and conduct effective activism. As usual, speakers included presidential hopefuls, conservative journalists and opinion leaders, and organizers, and breakout sessions covered topics from podcasting to local recruiting.

The 2010 version in Las Vegas had been considered the pinnacle for RightOnline. The conference took place four months before the midterm elections, in arguably the most popular tourist destination in America. Eleven hundred attendees came from 37 states to attend AFP’s annual event at the supposed peak of Tea Party enthusiasm, and was considered at the time a rousing success.

In contrast, the off-year RightOnline conference in Minneapolis this weekend attracted 1,655 attendees, according to AFP’s Erik Telford, from 42 states and the District of Columbia. An additional 10,000 (or more) watched the general session live online. That’s a 50% increase in attendance alone, and, with all due respect to my own metropolitan area, it’s doubtful that one could attribute the explosion in popularity to the ready availability of lutefisk.

The Tea Party is gaining enthusiasm, maturing, and preparing to put an even larger and more organized effort into 2012.

Unlike previous conferences and other grassroots get-togethers or Tea Party events, this gathering had less of an anti-Establishment feel. Speakers, such as my friend and former employer Michelle Malkin, gave qualified praise to the Republican Party for meeting their commitments to the Tea Party in at least an incremental manner, and counseled patience. GOP presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty, who has not had the same kind of grassroots appeal as Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain (both of whom also spoke), still received a warm greeting from the crowd. The toughest challenge to the GOP establishment came, unsurprisingly, from Andrew Breitbart, in a much-anticipated keynote address in which he briefly but pointedly criticized Republican leadership. "If you can’t sell freedom and liberty," Breitbart said to the delight of the crowd, "you suck."

Contrast that with the other political grassroots conference that took place simultaneously in the Twin Cities, Netroots Nation. Progressives from across the nation met just blocks from RightOnline, at the Minneapolis Convention Center. But from media reports, the two conferences might just as well have been on opposite ends of the earth. Despite the friendly, liberal confines of downtown Minneapolis — Mayor R.T. Rybak personally welcomed Netroots Nation to his city while expressing "tolerance" for his conservative guests at RightOnline — the prevailing mood was that of gloomy anger. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer got greeted with a chorus of boos from the grassroots that helped elevate his boss to the Democratic nomination, while speakers accused Barack Obama of being a "moderate Republican" president.

Actually, that’s more of a comparison than a contrast. The RightOnline crowd frequently booed mentions of Obama as well, but not because they consider him a moderate Republican.

Pfeiffer’s reception specifically originated in the broken promises of Obama to the LGBT community, but that’s hardly the only point of disillusionment for progressives. If Obama wants to win a second term, he can’t cut to his left over the next 18 months, especially on economics. He needs to bolster confidence in capital markets to rescue the economy, and he is running out of time to do it. To make that a reality, Obama will have to end his regulatory adventurism and find ways to reward risk and investment — and that will mean even more anger among the grassroots that lifted him to victory in 2008.

The anger didn’t stop with LGBT issues. When Netroots Nation attempted to stage a protest at RightOnline involving hijab-clad Muslim women, attendees barely noticed, and failed to provide the reaction progressive activists clearly hoped to provoke. On the other hand, when Breitbart attempted to enter Netroots Nation, they managed to provoke themselves into the very hysterics they planned at RightOnline. A crowd of activists shouted Breitbart down and effectively denied him access to their event. Video taken of the incident showed activists heckling Breitbart with accusations involving gay hookers and cocaine, an embarrassing display that, according to Breitbart, prompted an email of solidarity from Alan Colmes, who expressed his dismay over the actions of his fellow progressives.  

Sally Kohn at The Huffington Post called the conference "the lion’s den" (quoting Pfeiffer), and wrote that the display made her "nauseous."  But Kohn also got to the fundamental difference between the two conferences as well:

"[T]he juxtaposition of these two events is deeply revealing — suggesting that we on the left often have a hard time respectfully, even cheerfully disagreeing not only with our enemies but even our allies. Which may seem like a naïve point if your goal is to rattle the president's communications chief or Breitbart.  But if your goal is to win over the everyday Americans who watch incidents like these unfold — and who are judging progressives not just on their ideas but their character — like it or not, when we think we may be getting in a cathartic shot or two at others, we're more likely shooting ourselves in the foot."

Jon Henke, a libertarian analyst and consultant in Washington D.C., summed up the RightOnline conference:

"RightOnline continues to be a great mirror of the emerging grassroots activist class on the Right. The Tea Party activists aren't fading away. RightOnline 2011 indicates a movement growing smarter, broader and more effective."

Two conferences took place in Minneapolis this past weekend, representing movements that are heading in opposite directions. The Tea Party is gaining enthusiasm, maturing, and preparing to put an even larger and more organized effort into 2012. Progressives are heading off the rails.

Editor's Note: Edward Morrissey was an unpaid featured speaker at RightOnline.

 

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