Thursday, April 16, 2009
If conservative leaders no longer even try to offer serious solutions to national problems, nobody should underestimate their capacity or their will to mobilize angry Americans. Behind the April 15 "tea parties" rallying against President Barack Obama's economic program -- promoted as a new phenomenon by Fox News Channel and right-wing bloggers -- stands a phalanx of Republicans whose ideology is all too familiar.
At the apex of the tea-party movement, aside from such Fox revolutionaries as Rupert Murdoch, there is a well-funded organization known as FreedomWorks, headed by a former politician named Dick Armey. His past career should be instructive to any starry-eyed citizens who believe that they have at last found the true right-wing revolutionary path.
Back when the Republicans first gained control of Congress more than a decade ago, Armey, a former economics professor at a small Texas college, was hailed as the author of the Contract with America and led the Republicans as House Majority Leader until his retirement. Having risen to power on the strength of a "tax revolt" against President Bill Clinton's first budget, which raised rates on the wealthiest Americans to trim the enormous deficit he had inherited from the first Bush administration. That summer, Armey warned of an economic apocalypse -- and his party won the midterm election before his predictions could be proved embarrassingly wrong.
As anyone with a functioning memory should know, the Republicans under the leadership of Armey and his cronies Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay proceeded to rack up excesses in spending and boodling that made the old Democratic Congressional leaders look quite stingy. When he was asked once why he and his GOP comrades were chomping so much more federal pork than the Democrats ever did, he replied bluntly: "To the victors go the spoils."
Like so many self-styled populists of both parties in Washington, Armey packed his own golden parachute when he left Congress. At the same time that he took over the leadership of the "grassroots" group that eventually became FreedomWorks, he also joined a major corporate lobbying firm. The website of DLA Piper, one of the capital's biggest bipartisan law and lobbying outfits, boasts of Armey's influence among his colleagues. As it happens, he specializes in homeland security, a major growth industry with billions wasted annually on corporate boondoggles. After all, his final legislative masterwork was to chair the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, and he was the prime sponsor of the legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, he isn't listed as a lobbyist, but instead is called a "senior policy advisor."
As for FreedomWorks, which has claimed a national membership of some 700,000 conservative activists, its operations have long smelled of Astro-turf, or artificial grassroots. Most of the money that funded Armey's activism in the past was provided by tobacco, pharmaceutical and banking interests -- and there is no reason to think that has changed.
Nor is the ideological bent of the tea party's host in any sense new. When last heard from in 2005, Armey was busily conjuring phony grass-roots support for Social Security privatization. That effort led to a notorious episode involving a FreedomWorks employee who showed up at the Bush White House, where she was introduced as a "single mom from Iowa" endorsing the president's private-accounts scheme.
Buzzing beneath the furious rants of the tea-party protests, it is not hard to hear the same old right-wing rhetoric about taxes and deficits and the same old schemes to cut the taxes for the wealthiest citizens, deregulate the economy and despoil the environment. The difference between the heyday of Armey and now is that we have suffered the results of those policies in practice and reject them. The appeal of the Republican Party and conservatism as a movement are lower than ever.
Months of furious propaganda on talk radio and Fox News has achieved nothing so far, according to nearly every survey. Barack Obama's approval ratings remain close to 66 percent, with most Americans trusting him and believing that the country is on the path to renewal. This president has long benefited from ineffectual and discredited adversaries -- and Armey is no exception.
Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.
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