Behind the Tea Party Movement: Beltway Marketers, PR Consultants and Powerbrokers
(excerpts from Rogues of K Street: Confessions of a Tea Party Consultant) by ‘Anonymous’
Everything I know about being a good consultant comes from Fight Club. Discretion is everything. Rule number one is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. Rule number two is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. The story about the wild characters who are shaping this campaign cycle is worth telling, but please excuse my anonymity.
I hold as many meetings as possible over Tanqueray and tonics at the St. Regis hotel on K Street in Washington, D.C. The bar is dark and private, with comfortable couches. Even the gin tastes better there. On weekday afternoons the only people in the bar are foreigners and political consultants long past caring about who actually wins.
“You’re going to see something spectacular,” an old friend who has a knack for black-bag operations said as he proudly downed his vodka. “About a month from now you’ll see ACORN explode from within.” Right on schedule a video was released that showed undercover conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles getting advice from employees at the Baltimore office of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now on how to smuggle underage El Salvadoran girls into a fictitious brothel.
That’s when I realized this isn’t an average fringe movement, and I should know. I’ve created more than my share of fake grassroots organizations. Some were downright evil but effective beyond expectations. Did you get an automated call from the sister of a 9/11 victim asking you to reelect President Bush in 2004? That was me. Did you get a piece of mail with the phrase “supports abortion on demand as a means of birth control?” That may have been me too.
Conservatives had been trying to take down ACORN for three decades. Where they failed, BigGovernment.com and my friends succeeded. Shortly after, a core group of about 30 of us convened for the first time. It was the kind of conference call during which no one, except the handful with nothing to lose, offered last names. But it didn’t matter. I’d been around long enough to know many of the people by voice. Most of our talk was devoted to rants about the K Street lobbyists who are ruining the GOP. There I sat, in the quiet corner of a coffee shop on K Street, listening to a conference call beating the shit out of the people who keep me in business.
The worst thing I can say about the Tea Party I work for is that it can make lots of noise but can’t win without professional help. I love the irony of helping run this organization from the St. Regis Bar.
Of course, the Tea Party is not as cohesive as anyone thinks. It’s not a party or even an organization. You have to understand the state of the Republican Party to understand how there can still be oxygen in the room for the Tea Party. Bush mangled the GOP brand into a grotesque form that conservatives haven’t recognized in five years.
Conservatives now live in the political-party equivalent of Mad Max. Law and order inside the Republican Party has deteriorated, leaving regional warlords to scavenge over what’s left. The trouble is that some of the regional warlords are nuts or crooks. Among the better-known is Eric Odom’s Tea Party-related PAC, Liberty First. The rivalry between different Tea Party groups is real, and the leaders in Odom’s group don’t care much for the other leaders. Other groups are spending political capital fighting to lead a movement. My guys see it more as a fight to help reshape the debate.
The reality is the Tea Party as we know it will cease to exist within an election cycle. Its ideas won’t go away, but most of its leaders will. That’s because most self-appointed leaders in this world simply don’t know how to win. Mark my words: Without proper experienced guidance they will fuck it up. Rallies don’t win elections—votes do. Their egos are writing checks their organizations will never cash. In this world, anything from the Beltway is tainted. Therein lies the rub: Most people living in the hinterlands tend to have trouble mastering the finer points of creating and funding 501(c)(4) organizations and leveraging that support into targeted independent expenditures in races in which limited soft dollars can make a difference.
The exciting news for me is that the organization still needs someone who can deliver a message to the masses using traditional means. Even the most forward-looking political professionals know blogging and text messaging will get you only so far. That’s where I come in. I’m part of the team prepping to deliver the Tea Party message via traditional means.
A good piece of mail gets its message across in 10 seconds. Television gives you 30 seconds, maybe. We’re playing to the reptilian brain rather than the logic centers, so we look for key words and images to leverage the intense rage and anxiety of white working-class conservatives. In other words, I talk to the same part of your brain that causes road rage.
The mail you’ll see from me this fall won’t have much to say about gays or the unborn. We have new foils, such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Leveraging rage about a bailout for mega-millionaires and an $800 billion “stimulus” that has barely moved unemployment below double figures is a cinch compared with explaining why Bobby and Joey’s marriage is bad for America. Designing a thank-you note from an imaginary Wall Street executive to working-class taxpayers is so much more rewarding than most other messaging campaigns. With new variable-print technology, the postcard can be personalized and won’t look as though it was printed overnight at Kinko’s.
Dear [insert name],
I received my Troubled Asset Relief Program check from you and other taxpayers and wanted to personally thank you for your money. I will now be able to keep the third car and vacation home by [insert name of nearby vacation area].
I particularly want to thank [insert name of congressman] for ensuring billionaires like me do not have to worry about petty things like mortgage payments and retirement. [insert name of congressman] has been instrumental in making sure billionaires like me are protected.
[name of Wall Street billionaire]
P.S. [insert name of our candidate] opposes runaway government spending. He will vote to protect taxpayers, not billionaires like me.
Before Election Day there will be more stings (like the phony ACORN sting). If you are part of a large organization with a vested interest in the Obama administration’s (editor’s note: and America’s) success, be afraid.
The inner core of Tea Party consultants I work with don’t like to see their names in the news, but we do enjoy a good dark bar. We make a sport out of confusing the press. I had fake business cards printed to give to reporters. I watched a reporter walk out of a Conservative Political Action Conference reception in mid-February with a fistful of my faux business cards. Feeling a little guilty I told him not to file a story immediately because it would be guaranteed to be dead wrong. He finally published it a month later, after one of our friends charitably spent three hours with him.
At the Tea Party convention in Nashville I was photographed by The Washington Post while meeting with the inner sanctum, but the paper wasn’t able to identify us in the caption. The picture captured my chin and arm and my colleague with a mouthful of hamburger as we listened to an Andrzejewski campaign staffer explain why he knows how to run a campaign better. A local blog described him a couple of years ago as a “radically right-wing psychopath.” That was generous. In reality he’s an Allstate IT guy who should not be allowed near tequila, sharp objects or a campaign.
Causing mayhem is not limited to dealing with the press. We’ve quietly acquired Service Employees International Union shirts to wear at Tea Party rallies. For big labor, that’s like handing out TSA uniforms in Kabul. And at a rally in St. Louis this March, fake SEIU protesters joined the Tea Party protest.
Various Republican congressional leaders met for hours with our leadership and our finance team in the Richard Nixon suite at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. Never in my career had I had a congressman look me in the eyes behind closed doors and say with such sincerity, “Give me a list of what you need me to do.” The second meeting drew 10 congressmen. There we sat, inside the Capitol Hill Club (which shares the building that houses the Republican National Committee), sharing ideas on how we can work together. The third meeting drew 17 congressmen. We’ll see help with fundraising and research from friendly members of Congress. It’s what you won’t see that’s more important. Our role is to quietly help a dozen grassroots conservative candidates win in the fall, using traditional and nontraditional means. If you don’t hear from us directly, we will have done our job.