The tea bag crowd loathed insiders, but Armey has a good line of B.S. -- and he came with a rich goodie bag, including: ample Koch money, an experienced PR machine, savvy Republican political operatives... and a simple, ready-made agenda for diverting the angry crowds' attention from Wall Street to the bugaboo of Big Government.
With no real competition, Armey established himself as the de facto commanding general of the disjointed tea party army. He created the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots as astroturf fronts for orchestrating some 600 "tax day" protests on April 15, 2009, creating the image of mass opposition to Obama's health care reforms.
Next came the raucous summer shout-fests choreographed by Armey's team at several town hall meetings, which unsuspecting congressional Democrats had scheduled in their home districts. A FreedomWorks memo schooled local troops (mostly GOP activists) on how to disrupt these usually genial gatherings: "Spread out in the hall and try to be in the front half. The objective is to put the Rep on the defensive.... Watch for an opportunity to yell out.... Have some-one else follow-up with a shout-out.... The goal is to rattle him."
Then, in August, a defining "Tea Party Manifesto" emerged, asserting that the diffused rebellion had coalesced into a national movement with hard-core right-wing principles. It proclaimed adamant opposition to "government... high taxes... state government employees... [and] a government-defined health insurance plan." Who wrote the manifesto? Not grassroots folks, but Dick Armey and his top staffer at FreedomWorks. The purpose of the movement, declared the document, is "a hostile takeover" of the Republican Party.
Thus, the rebellion against corporate control of government became a CEO's wet dream: a grassroots constituency unwittingly harnessed to a laissez-faire agenda for establishing a corporate plutocracy over the people.Going inside
On the opening day of Congress last January, beaming members of the new Republican majority entered the House chamber. But also entering triumphantly for the swearing-in ceremonies was David Koch, the multibillionaire laissez-faire extremist who bankrolled much of the tea party Republicans' victory last fall. What symbolism! The members were taking office, but Koch and his corporate peers were taking power.
The fresh-faced outsiders quickly morphed into cynical insiders. While they've taken noisy public stands against deficit spending, they've quietly functioned as plodding mules for hauling the corporate wish list through the House. Some examples:
- In an astonishing case of tone deaf overreach, Rep. Paul
Ryan, a tea party endorsee last year and now the House budget chairman,
proposed to privatize Medicare and slash its health care payouts to
seniors by two-thirds. This would be a windfall for insurance
corporations, and it's a top priority of kill-the-government Koch-heads.
Ironically, most tea party candidates for Congress in 2010 had bashed
"Obamacare" by falsely claiming that it would require "massive cuts" in
this very popular, efficient, and effective Medicare program -- all but
two tea partiers voted with Ryan to destroy it. As one observer said,
"it's a measure of just how far off the deep end Republicans have gone."
That was no lefty talking, but David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's budget director.
- A few days after voting against granny's health care, the GOP
(including all tea partiers) did vote to help one of the neediest among
us: Big Oil. With gasoline at $4 a gallon and oil profits soaring,
Democrats suggested that the annual $4 billion taxpayer subsidy for the oil giants
should be eliminated. "No," said all 241 Republicans -- with not a single
dissent from tea party lawmakers, who otherwise decry "entitlement"
- Just like the old Congress, money talks in this "new" one, and the
tea party crew is eagerly snagging checks from corporate lobbyists.
Steve Stivers of Ohio, for one, landed a coveted seat on the financial
services subcommittee, and -- shazam! -- nearly $100,000 in campaign cash
fell into his lap in just his first eight weeks -- 85 percent of it from
financiers his committee oversees. Steve is now carrying two bills that
those interests really, really want passed. One would kill a Wall Street
reform requiring banks to disclose the difference in pay between CEOs
and average employees. The other exempts billionaire private equity
hucksters from regulation. Sheltering greedheaded banksters -- is that
what the tea party rebellion was about?
- How about sheltering children from dangerous toys? Just a few years ago, marketers like Mattel had to pull made-in-China toys, cribs, etc... off the shelves because they contained lead, toxic paint, and other dangers. Responding to public outrage, a bipartisan congressional majority voted in 2008 to beef up the staffing and authority of the then-dormant Consumer Product Safety Commission, giving it a firm mandate to protect our children. In one excellent reform, CPSC set up an easily accessible database so parents themselves can report product hazards or read injury reports. Great -- it's effective, consumer-driven, and in-expensive! Kill it, squawked industry lobbyists this year, calling it a government intrusion into the marketplace. The tea party's Mike Pompeo of Kansas sponsored an amendment to cut all funding for CPSC's database. Not for nothing is Pompeo called the "Congressman from Koch." His Wichita business was financed by a Koch Industries subsidiary, he was a trustee for a Koch think tank in Kansas, the Koch PAC was his campaign's top donor (by far) last year, David Koch's own front group (Americans For Prosperity) organized and mobilized tea party support for Pompeo, and a Koch lobbyist is now Pompeo's chief of staff in Washington. Mike's amendment passed 234 to 187, enjoying full tea party support.
Armey's "hostile takeover" of the GOP is effectively complete. Such old right-wing reliables as Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah have jerked themselves even harder to the right this year: "I was tea party before it was cool," he recently asserted, clearly worried that he might face a primary challenger from the tea wing. Speaker John Boehner, long the proper corporatist, has been twisted into some very uncomfortable policy positions by this caucus, which has been dubbed "Boehner's Migraine." And the Republican presidential primary is not merely tilted to the right, it has fallen off the cliff into extreme, religious-like, right-wing fanaticism.
Is this because that's what Americans want? Has the American electorate really gone nuts, demanding the policies that tea party Republicans are insisting on? No.
Rank and file tea partiers themselves are beginning to say, "This is not what we meant." As one supporter in Texas put it: "It can't just be kill everything. It's certainly not kill my investments." In fact, a CBS poll in July found two-thirds of the movement's supporters favoring compromise on the debt ceiling conflagration, 53 percent saying some tax increases were needed, and most saying that the most important need is not spending cuts, but jobs.
Meanwhile, the Bachmann-Perry-DeMint-Cantor style of goofy and strident tea partyism is poisoning the movement's own tea. In April 2010, when Armey began his Koch coup, only 18 percent of the public had an unfavorable view of the activists. That has now more than doubled. In an August 16 New York Times piece, independent analysts David Campbell and Robert Putnam report that the tea party ranks lower in popularity than all of the 23 other groups in the survey -- including Republicans, Democrats, and atheists!
The one group that gets similarly high negatives is the Christian right. That's significant, because the tea party that Armey has organized turns out now to be made up largely of longtime Republican partisans and the usual fundamentalist Christian political groups that want God running government -- a position that repels most Americans.
For progressives and true populists, our need is not to wring our
hands about their movement, but to work more urgently than ever to
expand our own. Koch-flavored tea is failing, but that doesn't mean we
gain -- unless we take to the countryside, offering a genuine,
anti-plutocratic, outsider alternative to the co-opted tea party,
hopeless Republicans, and cowed Democrats.