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?

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.

“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.

What bills could have passed in a Tea-Party-free America? For one, some kind of climate legislation to limit national greenhouse-gas emissions could have moved. One massive problem with the cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in June 2009 was that Democrats faced angry crowds at home when they defended it. That happened again and again on other issues, too, as Tea Partyers — talking to each other online, tuning in to Glenn Beck — would learn of some nightmare moving through Congress and turn their muskets on it. The in-person pressure, tactics they’d seen the left use for years, slowed down the Obama agenda.

But the Obama agenda would have had tough going anyway. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was determined to block the Democrats, and the Tea Party only helped him do it. So let’s consider what the Tea Party prevented him from doing. McConnell wanted Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s capable, conservative secretary of state, to be the next U.S. senator from that state. But the Tea Party made sure that Grayson lost to the libertarian scion Rand Paul. It brought down Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah, and it almost beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. For two years, it declared war on any Republican who had backed the bank bailout or suggested compromising with Democrats.

Without the Tea Party, there still would have been some GOP primary challenges. In many ways, the new movement just amplified what the Club for Growth was already doing—making life impossible for Republicans who voted for tax increases. But Republicans weren’t proud to come from the Club; there’s nothing particularly populist about a tax-exempt 527 organization that vacuums up money from the private sector. Without the Tea Party, the 2010 Senate bids by Mike Lee (Utah) and Marco Rubio (Florida) would have been tougher. And just as important, the Republicans who didn’t face Tea Party challengers wouldn’t have looked in their rear-view mirrors.

The 2010 primaries—the wins and the threats—kept Republicans honest. In 1995, the GOP briefly fought a debt-limit vote but then balked. In 2011, there were rallies and new conservative power brokers demanding concessions in exchange for raising the debt limit. Without the Tea Party, Paul, Lee and Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.) wouldn’t have been in the Senate to give the debt standoff form and focus.

That is where this alternative history starts to look good to Republican leaders. The debt fight hit both parties, but it knocked the most out of the GOP.  As the party has turned its attention to the presidential race, it has watched the man with the most endorsements—Mitt Romney—spar with pretenders, candidates who shouldn’t be competitive, given their fundraising and organizing limitations. Why is Herman Cain relevant? Because the Tea Party learned last year that it can demand the world—and nearly get it.

A world without the Tea Party would have been a little brighter for the Republican establishment. But it wouldn’t have been so bright for conservatives. They learned that there’s nothing like a megaphone-blaring, flag-waving populist movement to move the country your way. That’s why the Democrats now embracing the Occupy movement are kicking themselves for not getting into the streets sooner to protest Wall Street. Why did they ever imagine a world without it?