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Tea Party Patrons Point New Recruits Toward 2010


Americans for Prosperity Conference 2009 (Photo by: David Weigel)

For months, liberal researchers** **from the Center for American Progress to Firedoglake to the Rachel Maddow Show have pored over the financial records of libertarian tycoon David Koch to see just how deep his influence ran within the Tea Party movement. On Saturday, speaking at the Defending the American Dream Summit sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, Koch did it for them. Walking onstage at a morning rally, holding a Washington Award that he was about to give to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C), Koch took credit for launching one of the key organizations of the conservative insurrection.


Image by: Matt Mahurin

“Days like to today bring to reality the vision of our board of directors, when we founded this organization five years ago,” said Koch. “We envisioned a mass movement, a state-based one, but national in scope, of hundreds of thousands of American citizens from all walks of life standing up and fighting for the economic freedoms that made our nation the most prosperous society in history.”

The 2,000-odd activists of Americans for Prosperity–around 300 had signed up for the event in the last week, according to organizers–sat patiently through this. Koch lumbered through his short speech, walking right over applause lines. He had been introduced by Tim Phillips, the cheerful president and public face of Americans for Prosperity as a man who “provides jobs for folks across the country” and whose vision “launched our organization, this organization, that you’re seeing today, that so many of you are actively part of.” Financing from Koch, among other donors, allowed the activists to pay $99 ($79 if they registered early enough) for a two-day conference with three meals, at least two tickets for free beverages at noisy receptions, and a chance to hear from conservative stars like DeMint, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, radio host Hugh Hewitt, and CNBC host Larry Kudlow. It provided signs that they’d brought to a rally on Capitol Hill with slogans such as “Socialism Isn’t Cool” and “Cut Spending.”

But it was the prominence of Koch, who praised the activists for fueling a “strong, principled, freedom movement,” which revealed the degree to which conservatives have dismissed the “astroturf” attacks that greeted the Tea Parties. The Friday and Saturday summit was the latest and largest attempt by one of the Washington-based groups shepherding the Tea Parties to proclaim themselves leaders of a political majority, and to turn the attention of newly discovered conservative activists to the 2010 elections.

The massive attendance of the event, crammed into a Marriott in the towering Crystal City suburb of Washington, taxed the organizers’ schedule and resources. A Friday night “Tribute to Ronald Reagan” dinner was oversold, and more than a hundred grumbling activists, finding no seating in the hotel’s ballroom, had to make do with an overflow room and spotty acoustics. A crowded Saturday agenda was delayed by an hour by the slow movement of activists through the halls–as well as a lengthy speech by Kudlow, who informed the crowd, with a sleepy, congested voice, of the primacy of supply-side economics.

The rewards for activists, however, were great. In speeches and breakout sessions, they were credited with delaying and possibly defeating, health care reform for 2009. “We’re winning this battle because of you,” said DeMint, accepting his award with a short speech. Phillips told activists that they had “won those months” since health care bills were introduced in the House and Senate, and that their new mission was to “win” October and November.

“I went to a motivational speech with Rudy Giuliani and Joe Montana,” said Greg Thrum, an activist from the Buffalo, New York suburbs. “I’m getting much, much more motivated here.”

Thrum and his wife Lisa were representatives of the activists who’d made it to the conference. They’d hounded their own member of Congress and state assemblywoman about the economy and proposed tax hikes, but according to Lisa Thrum, their local Tea Party group was “not a very organized movement.” But they got ideas and ammunition from the summit. In the halls between the ballroom and the small breakout sessions, they exchanged stories of cowardly congressmen who wouldn’t hold town halls, or Tea Parties with numbers that were under-counted by the media. Dick Block, a Wisconsin activist who’d planned a Madison, Wisc. Tea Party, told activists to provide high-resolution photos of their events with numbers on the faces of attendees to force the media into reporting accurate crowd counts.

In the summit’s main hall, activists from the same states sat together next in a setting that resembled a national political convention. They watched a hard-rocking tribute to the Tea Party Movement, soundtracked to “See How Far We’ve Come” by Matchbox 20, and they cheered whenever a rally from one of their states was shown onscreen. They booed loudly when MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow appeared onscreen in a clip where she promised Phillips to be “as fair** **as I can be.”

As the activists moved out of that room, they could pick up red-meat bumper stickers from Accuracy in Media (“Ted Kennedy’s car has killed more people than my gun”), copies of new and old books by Glenn Beck from The Leadership Institute, and DVDs of “Not Evil Just Wrong,” a climate change skepticism documentary that was also previewed for a late-night audience. Townhall.com handed out free books by Michelle Malkin in exchange for magazine subscriptions; The Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute handed out copies of its “Great American Conservative Women” calendar, some of them freshly signed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).

Inside the ballroom, the pro-Republican slant of this was even more clear. Koch’s speech was one of several that clearly branded the crowd as part of a movement that would elect** **more Republicans to Congress. Gingrich–who was introduced by AFP’s Phillips as “the best mind in our movement”– made a half-hearted attempt at bipartisanship, encouraging activists to run as Democrats if they were in heavily Democratic districts. The point of his address, however, was a five-part Republican agenda that had hardly changed since Gingrich was toying with the idea of a 2008 presidential bid. Conservatives, said Gingrich, should campaign on a 50 percent, two-year cut in FICA taxes that would help every American “suddenly learn how much in taxes they had been paying.” They should promise to “match the Chinese capital gains tax, which is zero,” end the estate tax, and “match the Irish corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent.” And they should promote an “American energy policy using American sources of energy,” an applause line that split the crowd in two. Some activists chanted “drill here, drill now,” the slogan that Gingrich’s group, American Solutions, had branded with a 2008 ad campaign and quickie book. And some chanted “drill, baby, drill,” the variant that now-RNC Chairman Michael Steele promoted at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Libertarian purists in the crowd found some reasons to be cynical. Three of the headlining speakers, including Gingrich, had supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program–a major motivating force for the Tea Parties. Gingrich’s version of recent political history was kind to the GOP congressional majority in a manner that stretched some facts. “We can balance the federal budget,” he said, “because for four years, when I was speaker, we balanced the federal budget.”

But hard partisan politics won the weekend, and gave some form to the movement Koch finally took some credit for organizing. Activists learned that they were on the cusp of saving the long-planned, one-year elimination of the estate tax. If Democrats fail to pass a bill extending the estate tax in 2010, one of the key Republican victories of George W. Bush’s presidency would be realized. And the more the Tea Party movement could slow down the works in Congress, the better the chance of Democrats forgoing that bill.

“If we run out the clock,” said Phil Kerpen, AFP’s policy director, “the estate tax is gone in 2010, and it would be tricky for Democrats to try and bring it back.”

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