The Tea Party Began 12 Years Ago. What’s Changed—and What Hasn’t.

CNBC’s Rick Santelli started it all by attacking Obama and a rescue plan that he called a subsidy for “losers.” Biden should be ready for the next Santelli.

Twelve years ago, this Friday, CNBC’s Rick Santelli unleashed what quickly became known as the “Rant of the Year,” lambasting the economic crisis measures by the new President Barack Obama and calling for “capitalists” to hold a Tea Party revolt. “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,” asked Santelli as he stood on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A hearty chorus of boos followed. “You know, Cuba used to have mansions and a relatively decent economy. They moved from the individual to the collective. Now, they’re driving ’54 Chevys.” Santelli suggested having a massive protest akin to the Revolutionary era Boston Tea Party.

The resulting explosion of Tea Party organizations further stoked a right-wing backlash to Obama and carried Republicans to victory in the 2010 House elections, greatly constraining the president’s agenda from that point forward.

The only similarity between the political landscape of February 19, 2009 and February 19, 2021 is a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress, in power for just a month, facing an economic crisis. Beyond that, everything is different.

Congressional Republicans today are not unified in opposition to Democratic proposals, but they are divided over how loyal they should be to ex-President Donald Trump. Instead of a televised rant about why the Democratic president shouldn’t be helping the economic “losers,” the former Republican president released a written rant complaining that the Senate’s top Republican got outflanked by Democrats on economic aid.

A look back at Santelli’s rant is a reminder just how far we have traveled in 12 years. Yet at the same time, it contains a cautionary tale for Democrats. While no one at the moment is grotesquely pitting haves against have-nots, as Santelli did, no one should pretend such arguments can’t still pack political punch. Government helping people can be politically popular… until the moment when one group starts complaining about getting ripped off. This sentiment can animate the middle-class into picking on the poor (welfare, Food Stamps), the wealthy (bank bailouts) and racial groups (affirmative action).

Santelli’s rant came just two days after Obama enacted a $787 billion stimulus package, and just one after the new president announced a $75 billion program to help distressed homeowners. (Those sums seem quaintly modest now that we’ve spent trillions on the pandemic.) America was still reeling from a collapse in global financial markets and had lost more than 2 million jobs since the election.

But the Great Recession did not, of course, cultivate a Great Depression sense of common purpose. Rush Limbaugh and most Republicans had just dubbed Obama’s stimulus as the “porkulus,” and Santelli followed by stirring up anger towards homeowners facing foreclosure.

“The government is promoting bad behavior,” he thundered from the humble platform of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading floor. He angrily challenged Obama, “Why don’t you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages; or, would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure, and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road, and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water?”

Most fatefully, Santelli declared, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.”

Santelli never did much organizing, but conservatives within days held dozens of Tea Party rallies across the country. And a narrative of regular Americans rising up to protest Democratic tyranny pulsated through that year and the next. Yes, much Tea Party infrastructure was built not by regular Joes and Janes, but by the billionaire Koch Brothers. But many in the public responded; in 2010, Republicans flipped 63 U.S. House seats, 20 state legislative chambers, and a net of 6 governor’s offices.

So far in the Biden presidency, Democrats have not been hit with anything like a Tea Party rant. Public opinion is behind another sizeable dose of relief. What mild debate exists centers on whether upper-income households deserve more payments, not whether lower-income households have gotten too much.

Of course, it helps that low-income households cannot be as easily blamed for the pandemic, as underwater homeowners were blamed, often unfairly, for taking on too much house

But beyond pandemic relief, Democrats are eager to pursue more traditional progressive goals—either in the upcoming relief package or elsewhere—that could stoke Tea Party-style backlash, such as the cancellation of student loan debt, direct cash to impoverished families, a public health insurance option, and legal status for undocumented immigrants.

Wait. Doesn’t much of the Democratic agenda poll well? Especially a public option? Yes. But sometimes polls can turn once the rubber (policy specifics) hits the road (organized opposition).

Take health care. According to research by political scientist Michael Tesler, whites with racial resentments expressed more support for government-provided health insurance between 1988 and 2008, than in 2012. The gap in support between “strong racial liberals” and “strong racial conservatives” increased “threefold” after the Affordable Care Act was passed, in part because “Americans thought blacks would benefit more than whites.” What had been a more broadly shared view had become divisive.

One can look at that research and reasonably conclude such backlash stemmed from racist white reactions to an African-American president. And if race is the entire reason for Tea Party backlash, then our current white president shouldn’t have any problems. But, keep in mind that Bill Clinton suffered plenty of right-wing backlash too, so much that he didn’t even get his health care bill through a Democratic Congress, nor his very modest stimulus bill.

Perhaps Democrats will mitigate backlash by proposing bolder policies that help a wider swath of Americans than what was enacted in 2009 and 2010. The near-universal nature of past pandemic relief certainly seemed to help earn bipartisan support and ease passage. That recent success seems to be informing progressive activist support for Biden’s sweeping package today (while moderates like Senator Joe Manchin seek to make relief more targeted to lower-income families.)

But it’s impossible to make every policy universal. Immigration reform most directly helps immigrants. Child poverty measures most directly helps those in…poverty. (Perhaps big child tax credits like the ones being proposed by Republican Senator Mitt Romney will gain momentum, though his version tries to avoid backlash by offsetting the new money with the reduction of other welfare spending.) At some point, some conservative critics will hit Democrats for expending more energy on the marginalized than the middle, and they probably won’t be shy about pitting the two groups against each other.

This is not an argument for shelving policy ideas that would help the oppressed and impoverished out of political expediency. It is only a reminder that nominal control of Congress, early poll numbers and good intentions does not inoculate against polarizing political tactics. Another rant may be waiting around the corner. Success requires anticipating what attacks may come, assessing what didn’t work before, and strategizing accordingly.

Progressive ideas often can be distorted to suggest one group’s pockets will be picked to aid another. Santelli wasn’t first to figure that out; Richard Nixon and George Wallace stoked similar backlash to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. The challenge for Democrats is to show that everyone will benefit, even if everyone isn’t the direct beneficiary. Best to prepare such arguments in advance, before the next Rick Santelli starts his or her rant.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"