[Video: Rachel Maddow Show from August 7, 2009]
On February 8, 2009, CNBC talking head Rick Santelli helped launched the Tea Party movement with an epic rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. But 8 years later, as Republicans are now learning the hard way, the tea bag is on the other cheek.
The signs of sizable, sustained and seriously angry opposition to President Trump and the Republican agenda are everywhere. Trump’s first weekend was marked by the Women’s March that brought over three million Americans to streets of cities and towns in states red and blue. His disturbing and dangerous executive order on immigration and travel was met with thousands of protesters in airports across the country, while an army of lawyers mobilized to protect visa holders and legal U.S. residents from Trump’s draconian Muslim ban. Meanwhile, massive crowds are greeting GOP Congressmen at town hall meetings and public events back in their districts, causing abortion-restricting, Obamacare-repealing, Medicare-privatizing and climate change-denying hardliners to flee from their own constituents.
All in all, the effect is precisely what the organizers of the Indivisible movement sought to create. Those Democratic Congressional staffers who suffered through the Tea Party onslaught of 2009 and 2010 are turning the tables on their tormenters. And as Sarah Kliff recently reported in Vox, many veteran right-wing foot-soldiers from the halcyon days of the Tea Party are grudgingly acknowledging the turnaround:
“Eight years ago we were in the same boat,” says Dean Clancy, who previously ran policy for Freedom Works, a Tea Party-affiliated group that advocated against the health care law. “We were stunned, angry, fearful, besieged, paranoid, but we were also liberated. The feeling was wonderful, like you're the rebels in Star Wars”…
Clancy, the Tea Party activist, sees the appeal of the moment for liberals. “There's nothing more American than protest, and few things more enjoyable,” he says. “I suspect Trump must appear to them as Obama appeared to us, as a threat to everything we believe and cherish. You have to respect them for resisting that.”
But you have to respect the liberal activists and progressive protesters of 2017 for something else: They have the truth on their side. The contrast with the Tea Partiers of 2009 could not be more stark. On health care, taxes, federal spending, President Obama’s American citizenship as with almost every issue large and small, the Tea Baggers’ unrighteous indignation was untrue. It’s no wonder Jon Stewart warned them, “I think you might be confusing tyranny with losing.”
Consider the origin story of the Tea Party itself. In his documentary The Legacy of Barack Obama, CNN host Fareed Zakaria discussed the uproar over bank bailouts and CEO bonuses which began during the final months of the Bush administration. As CNBC’s Rick Santelli appeared on the screen, Zakaria proclaimed, “Then American anger over all of it seemed to find a voice.” In the ensuing clip from February 8, 2009, Santelli raged:
“The government is promoting bad behavior…This is America. How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills. Raise their hand. [Booing.] President Obama, are you listening? We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists who want to show up on Lake Michigan, I’m going to start organizing.”
“It was,” Zakaria declared, “the moment the Tea Party movement was born.”
Zakaria was doubly wrong. The right-wing fury directed at the President, as any number of video clips from McCain-Palin rallies the previous fall show, was simmering well before Barack Obama was even elected. More important still, Rick Santelli’s “epic rant about bailouts” wasn’t directed at big banks on Wall Street, but instead supposedly undeserving homeowners on Main Street he called “losers.” Santelli’s rage was over a rumored possibility of federal “cram-down” of mortgage rates that would help American families at the expense of the banks. It never happened, of course. But at a time when 100,000 homeowners were being foreclosed upon each week and 800,000 workers losing their jobs each month, Santelli rechanneled populist anger nevertheless. (It should be noted that Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s choice to head the Treasury Department, was personally involved in thousands of those foreclosures.) Soon, bankrolled by right-wing sugar daddies including Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and the Koch brothers, the Tea Party was on the streets and in Democrats’ faces.
Near the top of the list of Tea Party complaints was the issue of taxes. On April 15, 2009, thousands of the furious faithful rallied at Tax Day Tea Parties lovingly promoted by Fox News. In addition to carrying signs like “Sieg Heil Herr Obama” and “No Taxation without Representation”, many displayed buttons, hats and posters announcing “T.E.A.” or “Taxed Enough Already.” As future House Speaker John Boehner summed up their complaint:
"Across our nation, thousands of Americans are participating in taxpayer tea parties today for one simple reason: overtaxed families and small businesses have had enough.”
Now, there was a big problem with this claim at the heart of the Tea Party movement: it simply wasn’t true.
For starters, on February 9, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Also known as the stimulus. With no GOP votes in the House and just two in the Senate, the stimulus provided $787 billion to jump start a U.S. on the brink of collapse. Over 40 percent of that package came in the form of tax cuts. President Obama didn’t just keep his campaign promise to deliver tax relief for 95 percent of working Americans. He had also provided, as Steve Benen noted at the time, the largest two-year tax cut in American history.
But as the New York Times reported on the eve of the 2010 midterm elections, “What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?” As then North Carolina state representative Thom Tillis remarked, “This was the tax cut that fell in the woods -- nobody heard it.”
In a troubling sign for Democrats as they head into the midterm elections, their signature tax cut of the past two years, which decreased income taxes by up to $400 a year for individuals and $800 for married couples, has gone largely unnoticed.
In a New York Times/CBS News Poll last month, fewer than one in 10 respondents knew that the Obama administration had lowered taxes for most Americans. Half of those polled said they thought that their taxes had stayed the same, a third thought that their taxes had gone up, and about a tenth said they did not know.
Believe it or not, those September 2010 results represented an improvement over a CBS News poll conducted that February. A quarter of respondents said the Obama administration increased taxes while 53% said they were unchanged. Only 12% rightly answered that federal income taxes had come down under President Obama.
But among the confused Tea Party crowd, that belief was akin to asserting the sun orbits the earth:
Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.
It's no wonder that former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett aptly concluded, "For an anti-tax group," Bartlett aptly concluded, "they don't know much about taxes."
As it turns out, their ignorance was even more profound than that. Thanks to the combination of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, the deep recession which began in late 2007 and those Obama tax cuts of 2009, the AP reported, "as a share of the nation's economy, Uncle Sam's take this year will be the lowest since 1950, when the Korean War was just getting under way." In January 2011, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) explained that "revenues would be just under 15 percent of GDP; levels that low have not been seen since 1950." That finding echoed an earlier analysis from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Last April, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded, "Middle-income Americans are now paying federal taxes at or near historically low levels, according to the latest available data." Or as former Reagan Treasury official Bruce Bartlett again explained it in the New York Times:
In short, by the broadest measure of the tax rate, the current level is unusually low and has been for some time. Revenues were 14.9 percent of G.D.P. in both 2009 and 2010. Yet if one listens to Republicans, one would think that taxes have never been higher, that an excessive tax burden is the most important constraint holding back economic growth and that a big tax cut is exactly what the economy needs to get growing again.
Michael Ettinger of the Center for American Progress put it in 2010, “The idea that taxes are high right now is pretty much nuts.”
Nuts, indeed. But not as nuts as some of the slanders the Tea Party, the GOP and their conservative echo chamber deployed in their all-out effort to stop what became Obamacare. It was, after all, the Affordable Care Act, that mobilized those hardest of right-wing hardliners to overwhelm Democratic town hall meetings in the summer of 2009 and propelled the GOP to its massive victory in the 2010 midterms. And virtually all of their anti-Obamacare talking points were lies.
Consider, for example, “death panels.” A Democratic proposal to enable Medicare to pay for patients’ optional end-of-life counseling by their physicians was turned into something found nowhere at any time in the legislation for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Thanks to the chicanery of Betsy McCaughey, the same Betsy McCaughey who in 1993 invented “you can’t keep your doctor” under HillaryCare, a common-sense benefit was transformed into a 21st century Soylent Green. Sarah Palin, who later claimed she was speaking metaphorically, famously framed the GOP slander this way:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
That would be evil, if were true. When Iowa GOP Senator Chuck Grassley warned his constituents that Obamacare would “pull the plug on grandma” and would have prevented dying Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy from receiving treatment, he was lying. But Sec. 1233 of the bill, labeled "Advance Care Planning Consultation," did no such thing. That’s why Politifact didn’t merely call McCaughey’s fabrication a “Pants on Fire” lie. The fact-checking site named “death panel” the Politifact Lie of the Year for 2009. (It should be noted that conservatives, aided by Democrat Howard Dean, returned with a new deception that could be called “Death Panels II.” The false charge this time was that the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board—or IPAB—was a “rationing body” which would inevitably leader to seniors unnecessarily dying.)
The “death panels” fraud wasn’t the only one Republicans and their Tea Party storm troopers deployed in their blitzkrieg on the Affordable Care Act. As Republican spin-master Frank Luntz counseled, right-wingers inside Congress and out denounced Obamacare as a “government takeover of health care.” In 2009 and 2010, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trotted out “victims” of delayed treatment from Canada and the UK to show what life under Obamacare would look like.
There was only one problem. Obamacare did not represent a government takeover of health care. After all, while the Medicaid program would be expanded, Americans would continue to get their surgeries, tests, doctor appointments and prescription drugs from private insurers, hospitals, clinics, physicians, drug stores and pharmaceutical companies. The four-part American health care system (VA for veterans, Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor and elderly, private insurance for workers and individuals) would continue much as it had before. That’s why “a government takeover of health care” was declared the Politifact Lie of the Year for 2010.
The Tea Party dissembling about the ACA hardly ended there. When President Obama told a joint session of Congress in September 2009 that undocumented immigrants would not be eligible for coverage under Obamacare, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted, “You lie.” It was, of course, the Tea Party darling who was lying. During his failed 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney wrongly claimed “Obamacare adds trillions to our deficits and to our national debt.” Of course, Republicans have tried different formulations of this tried and untrue talking point before and since. Every single time, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has explained that they are wrong. The ACA’s combination of new tax revenue and savings from private Medicare insurers and providers always is larger than the program’s expenses. When then House Majority Leader Eric Cantor claimed “the health care bill costs over $1 trillion” and accused CBO of “budget gimmickry,” Ezra Klein responded simply,
“What's important about Cantor's argument is not that he's wrong. It's why he's saying something he knows to be wrong…Repealing health-care reform would cost hundreds of billions of dollars and Eric Cantor knows it."
Medicare in particular became another area where the GOP’s maybe-not-best and not-the-brightest promulgated a myriad of myths. For starters, as former GOP Congressman Bob Inglis (R-SC) learned the hard way in the summer of 2009, a majority of his party’s supporters did not seem to know that Medicare is a government-run program:
In July, Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC) described an angry constituent who confronted him at a South Carolina town hall meeting, "keep your government hands off my Medicare." Despite his best efforts to explain that Medicare is a government program, the voter, Inglis lamented, "wasn't having any of it."
But as data from Public Policy Polling revealed that August, that same cognitive failure was widespread. While 39% of all Americans responded that the government should "stay out of Medicare," 59% of self-identified conservatives and 62% of McCain voters held that oxymoronic view.
Another scurrilous sound bite continues to this day. As noted above, the ACA was funded in part by $760 billion in savings over its first 10 years from private Medicare Advantage insurers and providers. (The figure for the next decade is around $1 trillion.) But in Mitch McConnell’s hands, the reductions to providers, not beneficiaries, became “sticking it to seniors.” By September 2009, the RNC was running ads proclaiming, “No cuts to Medicare to pay for another program. Zero.” In 2010 and again in 2014, Republicans successfully ran against Democrats as supposed "Medicare killers," as this ad attested:
"By voting for ObamaCare, Democrats like Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich cut $717 billion from Medicare -- including $154 billion from Medicare Advantage -- which will hurt seniors."
Again, as Politifact among others explained, the charge wasn’t true. But was and is true is this. Every Republican budget blueprint authored by Paul Ryan has kept those same dollars in Medicare savings. Not for a different health care program, that is, but for tax cuts for the rich.
One of the greatest facades erected by the Tea Party was its movement was somehow “mainstream” with crossover appeal to independents and Democrats beyond the GOP base. This was belied not just by polling data which showed Tea Partiers were overwhelmingly old, white and Republican. As it turns out, the April 2010 Tea Party “Contract from America” was little different than the 2008 GOP Platform or the 2010 Republican “Pledge to America.” And for all the talk of a Balanced Budget Amendment, slashing federal spending and reducing the national debt, the New York Times explained of its polling in April 2010, “But in follow-up interviews, Tea Party supporters said they did not want to cut Medicare or Social Security — the biggest domestic programs, suggesting instead a focus on “waste.” The only area where even a third of Americans agree federal spending should be cut is foreign aid. As Klein pointed out at the time, “Bummer, then, that it accounts for less than a single percent of the budget.”
The Tea Party was wrong about just about everything it stood for, but not the politics of its fury. In 2010, the GOP won an overwhelming triumph, regaining the House and taking over state houses nationwide. In 2014, Republicans retook the Senate and in 2016, the White House. Manufacturing outrage works. As former Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl put it when he overstated how many abortions Planned Parenthood performs by a factor of 30, his figure was “not intended to be a factual statement.” For Republicans and its Tea Party vanguard, that was a feature, not a bug.
Of course, it is a bug for American democracy. President Obama, after all, cut unemployment from a high of almost 10 percent to under five. Since he first took the oath of office, federal spending has been flat, while annual budget deficits have been reduced by more than half. The percentage of Americans without health insurance has brought down to the lowest level on record. Nevertheless, majorities of Americans (or at least, Republicans) believe the reverse is true. A year ago, 73 percent wrongly believed budget deficits had gone up under Obama. In January, 34 percent of Americans and 43 percent of Republicans thought the number of uninsured had increased or stayed the same after the passage of Obamacare. As Public Policy Polling found last May:
There continues to be a lot of misinformation about what has happened during Obama's time in office. 43% of voters think the unemployment rate has increased while Obama has been President, to only 49% who correctly recognize that it has decreased. And 32% of voters think the stock market has gone down during the Obama administration, to only 52% who correctly recognize that it has gone up. In both cases Democrats and independents are correct in their understanding of how things have changed since Obama became President, but Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.
The list of right-wing smokescreens and deceptions—that “tax cuts pay for themselves” or the U.S. military has been “gutted”—goes on and on. The Birther Myth—that Barack Obama was a Muslim born outside the United States—didn’t just make Donald Trump a Tea Party favorite. During the 2016 GOP primaries, as researcher Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College found, “The easiest way to guess if someone supports Trump? Ask if Obama is a Muslim."
To put it in a nutshell, before there was “fake news,” there was the Tea Party.
Which is one reason why Democrats should not—and need not—emulate that defining trait of untruth so central to the success of the Tea Party. It could only succeed as an anti-government movement by concealing the truth about government. In the battles that count most (and those that don’t), the Trump resistance has truth on its side. The repeal of Obamacare with no replacement in sight could leave 30 million uninsured, leaves millions on the brink of financial ruin and needlessly cost thousands of lives each year. Draconian new abortion restrictions will put women’s reproductive health—and lives—at risk. President Trump’s draconian Muslim ban is a betrayal of American values that will cause humanitarian crises here and abroad, all while creating grave threats to U.S. troops in the field fighting against ISIS and Al Qaeda. Huge tax cuts for the wealthy, whether Donald Trump’s or Paul Ryan’s, will worsen income inequality, mushroom the national debt and starve the federal government of funding. And Trump’s Cabinet and his Republican enablers in Congress pose a danger to civil liberties here and to the global environment.
It will be difficult to convince those who long for the America of yesterday not to fear the Americans of today and tomorrow. But when it comes to their “economic anxiety,” they won’t find any soothing solutions from the Republican majority in Washington, DC. The Women’s March, the Town Hall Project, blue state Attorneys General and those on the frontlines in airports, courtrooms and public spaces are already having an impact. As his spokesman Sean Spicer made clear earlier this month, the Trump administration can’t handle the truth:
Protesting has become a profession now. They have every right to do that, don’t get me wrong. But I think that we need to call it what it is. It’s not these organic uprisings that we have seen through the last several decades. The tea party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid Astroturf-type movement.
The millions who have and will continue to march put the lie to the administration’s “paid protester” slander. And if they can succeed in joining Americans’ propensity to support Democratic positions on the issues with kind of the voter intensity the Tea Party generated in 2010, 2014 and 2016, Trump and his red wave can be rolled back.
We just have to stay true to ourselves. And the truth.
This article first appeared at Daily Kos.