Imagining a World Without the Tea Party

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Oct. 31 2011 10:38 AM

Imagining a World Without the Tea Party

Without Rick Santelli’s rant, would we be paying attention to Herman Cain?

Herman Cain
Hermain Cain is the GOP front-runner, but would he be on our radar without the Tea Party?

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What if Rick Santelli had taken the day off on Feb. 19, 2009?

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The Obama White House had just rolled out the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, another fat, hanging pinata for CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street” panelists. They took their turns, then went to the Chicago-based Santelli. For five minutes he ripped into the plan, calling it the sort of pay-the-losers nonsense that was wrecking America.

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“We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party!” Santelli shouted. “All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing . . . we’re going to be dumping in some derivative securities!”

He’d just started a political movement. At the D.C. offices of FreedomWorks, a semi-obscure libertarian action center, Web designers quickly put a picture of Santelli on their home page. In the Atlanta suburbs, a struggling housewife named Jenny Beth Martin heard Santelli’s rant and founded the organization that would become the Tea Party Patriots. Eight days later, there were Tea Party protests in 48 cities.

“I was taken aback to the nth power,” Santelli remembers. “I’d said many things like that on previous episodes.  . . .  I didn’t have an inkling,” he says, that a political force would flourish “because I said the words Tea Party. ”

Santelli likens the 2009 political climate to a tinderbox with lots of dry wood; he was just “the guy who threw a match.” Is he right? Before his fiery speech, the right had been protesting President Obama but struggling for traction. Some of the groups that would drill the Tea Party into an electoral force, such as David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, were already campaigning against the $787 billion stimulus bill and the pro-union Employee Free Choice Act. But according to Jared Bernstein and other veterans of the White House’s economic team, Santelli’s rant and the subsequent rallies spooked the right people. Suddenly, a president who had entered office with a 70 percent approval rating had to explain why his policies made people so angry.

“The left had always protested,” explains Brendan Steinhauser, director of state campaigns for FreedomWorks, now one of the most influential Tea Party groups. “Conservatives getting out into the streets—that was a paradigm shift. Republicans were coming to us, asking how they could be more effective.”

Now, insTead of fighting the GOP, a Party with a dingy brand and no credibility, the Democrats were fighting a new political force that voters kind of liked. If the Tea Party hadn’t caught on, the Obama Team would be fighting the same conservative movement that it had defeated in 2008. And a few more victories could have meant life for some legislation that died prematurely. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s “big bang” strategy of win after win after win could have happened — if it hadn’t been for all those people waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and panicking about “death panels” when members of Congress went back to their districts.

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