Republicans sought to ignite a popular revolt against President Obama on Wednesday by staging “tea party” protests across the nation to demand lower taxes and less government spending -- but the tactic carried risk for the party.
With half a million or more jobs vanishing each month, many Americans are less concerned about how much Washington deducts from their paychecks than whether they will have a paycheck at all.
“Nothing is as pressing a concern as the economy,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, adding that even among Republicans the political salience of taxes is not what it once was.
In California, where the Proposition 13 tax rebellion of 1978 sparked a national conservative resurgence, the rallies carried extra resonance, thanks to the nearly $13 billion in state tax hikes enacted in February.
But for Republicans nationally, the issue is whether their call for shrinking the federal government in the depths of a severe economic downturn makes them seem out of touch or tone-deaf to the harsh reality of the jobs crisis.
Gallup polls released this week found that 53% of Americans approve of the expansion of the U.S. government to help fix the economy, even if most of that group wants it scaled back once the crisis abates. And 48% think that the amount of federal income taxes they pay is “about right,” a finding that shows anti-tax sentiment near a historic low for the last five decades.
Nonetheless, protesters gathered in cities across America to mark the April 15 tax filing deadline with rallies inspired by the Boston Tea Party and promoted by Fox News, conservative blogs and talk radio.
Among the top grievances were the hundreds of billions of dollars in recent taxpayer subsidies to automakers, banks and Wall Street investment giants.
“All these bailouts, it’s just money that’s never going to reach the common people,” Dan Kipp, a 31-year-old stay-at-home father, said at a demonstration outside the Colorado Capitol in Denver.
Like scores of other protests, from Boston to San Diego, the one in Denver served as a forum for a broad range of attacks on Obama and fellow Democrats who control Congress. Demonstrators waved signs saying, “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for the American” and “Our Soldiers Didn’t Fight and Die for Socialism.”
The California rallies offered a fresh display of upheaval within the Republican Party over the new sales, income and other tax hikes approved by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.
In Santa Ana, more than a thousand protesters cheered as speakers called for the Republican governor’s recall.
“The guy’s got to go,” Allan Bartlett, a member of the Orange County Republican Central Committee, told the crowd gathered on a plaza outside the county courthouse.
To dramatize the anger of many conservatives, Colin Gomes of La Mirada brandished a plastic sword piercing a hollow rubber Schwarzenegger head.
“We need to punish him for what he’s done,” Gomes said shortly before the crowd joined in singing “America the Beautiful.”
Gomes and others denounced the budget measures that Schwarzenegger is promoting in the May 19 statewide election, most forcefully Proposition 1A, which, in part, would extend the tax increases for two years.
Still, most of the anger at the California rallies was directed at Obama and the vast expansion of government that he has overseen as the economy has worsened.
Yet the president’s high approval ratings for his handling of the economy suggest that most Americans accept his argument that a major increase in federal spending is needed to blunt the crisis.
Obama sought to inoculate himself by building modest tax cuts for most Americans into the stimulus bill, while saying that today’s higher spending must give way to frugality and deficit reduction once the economy rebounds.
And so far, Obama seems to be controlling the debate.
“A lot of the discussion has been focused on government spending, but the voters are still focused on one number: the unemployment number,” said David Winston, another prominent Republican pollster. “Any time you are not talking about jobs, you are talking about topic No. 2 for Americans. Republicans need to translate the tax and spending issue into jobs.”
At least since the days of President Reagan, Republicans have thrived on the anti-spend, anti-tax message -- even if Republican presidents have presided over expansions of the federal deficit.
Today, however, the economic climate is worse than it has been in decades. In November, the country picked a do-more, spend-more presidential candidate over a do-less, tax-less opponent.
And though Republicans insist that Obama’s budget will ultimately put upward pressure on taxes, for now Obama is cutting taxes.
But that fact carried little weight with the demonstrators.
“We’re just Americans trying to get our voices heard -- about too much taxation and spending, the swelling size of government, the bailouts for big business,” protester Robin Todd said at a rally outside the domed Capitol in Sacramento. “That’s European-style socialism.”
In Glendale, signs bobbing over a crowd of 250 outside City Hall proclaimed: “Taxed Enough Already” and “America, No Left Turn.”
In Temecula, where hundreds gathered at a duck pond, a sign warned: “Back Away From My Wallet!” An elderly man wore a blue shirt with “No We Can’t!” emblazoned on the back, a rebuttal to Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan.
Sara Dotson, 17, dressed like an Indian for the occasion. The leader of a local Republican club for teenagers, she helped people hurl mock Styrofoam crates of tea into the pond.
“The sons of liberty dressed like Mohawks for the Boston Tea Party,” she said. “That’s why I’m wearing this.”
Times staff writers Eric Bailey in Sacramento, Ari B. Bloomekatz in Glendale, Richard Cooper in Washington, Richard Fausset in Atlanta, David Kelly in Temecula, Nicholas Riccardi in Denver, Catherine Saillant in Ventura, and Michael Oneal in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.