Harriet Lloyd, executive director of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition, said her group has learned, in the seven years since its founding, to focus on just a couple of initiatives at a time. “What we have decided is that we’re taking a surgical approach to life,” she said. “We know we can’t be all things to all people.”

The Tea Party, she suggested, must find a similar focus.

AT THE MARGINS
But focusing on an issue or two is, on some level, antithetical to the tea party ethos. The movement finds its strength in the broad, catch-all disaffection of those left behind by economic collapse and political-cultural shift.

Indeed, the gatherings on the State House steps and across the country on tax day amounted to a sweeping condemnation of the overall direction of the country. It is hard to imagine the rank-and-file mustering on Smith Hill to argue the finer points of tax legislation with quite the same vigor.

Jenny Beth Martin, an Atlanta-based national coordinator with Tea Party Patriots, suggested the larger movement is facing the same predicament.

Most advocacy groups identify a set of issues and must figure out how to mobilize people around those issues, she said. The tea party movement has the opposite challenge. “We have people that are involved and now we have to figure out a way to [build] an organization that can support them,” she said.

Building an organization that can accommodate all the strains of tea partyism, and still act as an effective political force, is a tall order. Especially in a heavily Democratic state skeptical of the group’s aims.

Moakley, of the University of Rhode Island, said the tea party’s insurgent concern with profligate spending is more likely to find a stable, institutional home in the Moderate Party.

Absent a bold stroke of political discipline, the Rhode Island Tea Party will, at best, remain a megaphone. A voice for change without a hand on the levers of power.

That, of course, is not an entirely impotent perch. Like other populist uprisings before it, the Tea Party may be able to nudge the broader political discussion in one direction or another. And that would be something.

Something far more modest, though, than a revolution.

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