Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio addresses "tea party" activists… (Paul Connors, Associated…)
Reporting from Phoenix — Two years ago, they got mad. They made homemade signs and attended rallies. They started grass-roots groups. They voted in the midterm election and helped deliver the House to a new Republican majority. Then, suddenly, for many in the "tea party" movement, the question was: Now what?
"Fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets," responded Mark Meckler, the Grass Valley attorney who cofounded Tea Party Patriots, a coalition of 3,300 groups.
About 2,000 supporters gathered this weekend in Phoenix for what was billed as their first national policy conference. Having helped elect half of the 100 new members of Congress, tea party activists said they didn't plan to sit back and take it easy.
Congress has heard from them on federal spending, the debt ceiling and what they say are federal intrusions on states' rights. Planning for the long term, they have settled on the deliberately grand idea of a 40-year plan.
The focus will be on policy, not politicians. Unless politicians get in their way.
"Politicians are a fungible commodity," Meckler said at the Phoenix Convention Center. "We are going to have to remove a lot of the politicians in order to fix what's wrong with the country."
For many at the conference, the weekend was like a crash course in conservative political theory.
Speakers focused on American history, the Founding Fathers, individual rights and the Constitution. When an announcer said, "Let's dig into the details of the debt ceiling," people stayed put, ready to listen.
"One of the things we haven't done as Americans is keep track of our history," said Roger Langenberg, 56, who had driven two days from Eugene, Ore., with his son Dan. "A lot of it's been rewritten."
Like others in the movement, the Langenbergs said they were socially conservative Christians who voted Republican. They are not concerned that Tea Party Patriots avoids taking positions on gay marriage and abortion.
"I would consider it a distraction to deal with those issues," Dan Langenberg, 29, said Saturday. "That's not going to affect our jobs and the debt."
In the convention hall, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, author of the state's controversial new anti-immigration law, were enthusiastically welcomed.
"We can take this country back, one state at a time," said Pearce, who recently introduced a measure that would require schools to notify law enforcement if enrolling students could not provide proof of legal status.
But the conference did not provide a cozy environment for career politicians. Meckler said GOP leaders in Washington were invited; all sent regrets.
Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) was one of the few veteran Washington politicians to attend. When he told the crowd he'd been in Congress for 26 years, a veritable chill fell over the room. But he was cheered when he mentioned he had sponsored an effort to repeal the law banning incandescent light bulbs.
Eric O'Keefe, an opponent of the new healthcare law who advocates healthcare compacts among states, exhorted the crowd to "break the corrupt cycle of incumbency, because if we don't, it will destroy this great republic."
("If he could see my bank account, he wouldn't say that," Barton said dryly backstage.)
Though some tea party activists were lukewarm about the Republican crop of potential presidential candidates, many — including Roger Langenberg — were enthusiastic about businessman Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, who has declared his candidacy.
Cain advocated lowering the corporate tax rate, eliminating the capital gains tax and suspending taxes on profits parked overseas by American companies.
America has survived many traumas, but "because of the patriots, we will survive two more years of Barack Obama," Cain said to raucous cheers. "Hold on. Help is on the way."
Two potential candidates also spoke Saturday. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) stayed on his favorite topic — fiscal responsibility. Former Minnesota Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty emphasized his distrust of big government, telling the conference, "The Constitution was not written to limit freedom; it was written to limit government," and urging that the "ridiculous federal tax code" be thrown overboard.
Clutching a copy of the Constitution, he drew a laugh when he said, "Now, I'm not one who questions the existence of the president's birth certificate. But when you listen to his policies, don't you at least wonder what planet he's from?"
The group will release the results of its presidential straw poll Sunday.