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A Tea Party of populist posers

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On the morning of Oct. 14, a cyber-insurgency caused servers to crash at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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The culprits, however, weren't attacking the chamber; they were well-meaning citizens who overwhelmed the big-business lobbying group with a sudden wave of online contributions. It was one of the more extraordinary events in the annals of American populism: the common man voluntarily giving money to make the rich richer.

These donors to the cause of the Fortune 500 were motivated by a radio appeal from the de facto leader of the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, who told them: "Put your money where your mouth is. If you have a dollar, please go to . . . the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and donate today." Chamber members, he said, "are our parents. They're our grandparents. They are us."

They are? Listed as members of the chamber's board are representatives from Pfizer, ConocoPhillips, Lockheed Martin, JPMorgan Chase, Dow Chemical, Ken Starr's old law and lobbying firm, and Rolls-Royce North America. Nothing says grass-roots insurgency quite like Rolls-Royce -- and nothing says populist revolt quite like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In describing the big-business group as "us," Beck (annual revenue: $32 million) provided an unintended moment of clarity into the power behind the Tea Party movement. These aren't peasants with pitchforks; these are plutocrats with payrolls.

There is genuine populist anger out there. But the angry have been deceived and exploited by posers who belong to the same class of "elites" and "insiders" that the Tea Party movement supposedly deplores. Americans who want to stick it to the man are instead sending money to the man.

Consider the candidates on the ballot next month who are getting Tea Party support. In the Connecticut Senate race, there's Linda McMahon, who with her husband has a billion-dollar pro-wrestling empire. The challenger to Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, is a millionaire manufacturing executive. The former head of Gateway computers, Rick Snyder, is spending generously from his fortune to win the Michigan governor's race.

In New York, the Republican gubernatorial candidate is developer Carl Paladino, with a net worth put at $150 million. And Rick Scott, running for governor in Florida, has a net worth of $219 million from his career as a health-care executive. Then there's California, where the Republican Senate nominee is former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina and the gubernatorial candidate is former e-Bay boss Meg Whitman.

Democrats have their phony populists, too. Billionaire Jeff Greene, who cashed in on subprime mortgages, made an unsuccessful attempt at the U.S. Senate nomination in Florida. But more often this year, it's the Democrats who are defending themselves against the "elite" allegation.

"The elite's fear and loathing of the tea party movement is rooted in the recognition that the real change is only now coming," writes Tony Blankley, the conservative commentator who exempts himself from the elite label even though he worked for the speaker of the House and now toils for a prominent PR firm. The Tea Party, he wrote, will "constrain the elite's economic and cultural hegemony."

Oh? Who will do this constraining of the elite's hegemony? Why, people such as the Tea Party's Senate candidate from Alaska, Joe Miller (Yale Law School); and from Kentucky, Rand Paul (Duke Medical School), and from Colorado, Ken Buck (Princeton University).

And who will be helping these anti-elite elites get into office? Well, there's FreedomWorks, a Tea Party outfit run by Dick Armey, the former Republican lawmaker whose last job was with a big lobbying firm. His deputy at FreedomWorks is Matt Kibbe, who worked for none other than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There's also the Tea Party Express, the creation of longtime Republican consultant Sal Russo. A colleague at Russo's consulting firm pitched the Tea Party Express idea as a way to boost the company's bottom line. According to an internal e-mail intercepted by the New York Times, it came from a "desire to give a boost to our PAC and position us as a growing force/leading force."

The guy who put together the Tea Party "Contract From America" previously worked on Rudy Giuliani's presidential campaign. Another Tea Party group, Americans for Prosperity, has been lavishly funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.

A movement of the plutocrats, by the political professionals and for the powerful: Now that's something Tea Partyers should be mad about.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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