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Matt Kibbe, FreedomWorks CEO, On The Tea Party's Evolution And Its Role In 2012

First Posted: 06/10/11 01:16 PM ET Updated: 08/10/11 06:12 AM ET

Matt Kibbe
FreedomWorks CEO Matt Kibbe speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2011. Credit: Gage Skidmore

WASHINGTON -– One thing is certain. There is no Tea Party. There are only tea parties.

In other words, two years after the birth of a new force in American politics, the Tea Party (there's that singular usage again) has proven itself to be decentralized, diffuse, and largely devoid of nationalized leadership. An ongoing reporting project by The Huffington Post on the nature of the movement has found that its focus and energy has moved away from national politics toward state legislatures and local organizing. The caveat to this is that most involved fully expect the grassroots' attention to return to the national level as the 2012 presidential election heats up.

This series will aim to identify the reach and depth of the more localized movements and track its progress over the course of the 2012 Republican presidential primary, continuing into the general election showdown between the GOP candidate and President Obama.

Several organizations claim to represent the Tea Party movement on a national level. One of them, FreedomWorks, has done less speaking on behalf of the movement and more organizing in conjunction with local groups. HuffPost sat down for an interview recently with the group’s president and CEO, Matt Kibbe. He had just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe where he said he was greeted with intense interest by many who wanted to better understand the Tea Party.

An edited version of the interview transcript is below. Kibbe argues that communications and technology revolutions have changed politics forever, but he does not argue that the Tea Party is bulletproof. In fact, he says the upcoming 2012 presidential election could be the movement’s “Achilles heel."

On how new technologies –- the expansion of high speed internet and social media throughout the country in particular -– make this conservative revival different from those in the past.

I do think it’s different. The difference is from a typical political backlash, where in the past you’ve had this fairly typical political cycle. It’s almost like the business cycle right? One party gets power, they go too far and there’s a backlash. And you particularly saw this backlash against both Republicans and Democrats. What’s different this time is that the movement was very much facilitated by both the decentralization of information and multiple news sources and all these bloggers that are very much undermining the establishment paradigm: New York Times, the three TV networks. We don’t need them anymore. So we get our information from thousands of competing sources, which is a liberalization of the process. Same thing with social networking, which totally changes the strategic advantage that special interests have had over the legislative process and the political debate. So between those two things –- the lobbyists that stand outside of Ways and Means in Gucci’s Gulch don’t have all that tremendous advantage of being there that they used to, because the legislative language gets online, everybody gets to read it, everybody gets to parse it.

I think the Tea Party is perhaps the first full manifestation of this process. You certainly saw hints of it in Howard Dean and certainly the Obama campaign. But anybody that doesn’t take this seriously is going to miss the boat. And I got to believe that it’s a very positive trend. Whatever the outcome is in Tunisia and Egypt, clearly this democratization is a good thing. Once you let people, once you give people access to more information, and engage them in the process, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I would take it one step further. I happen to think that people that believe in freedom and are sort of instinctually libertarian have a strategic advantage when it comes to such an open ended process, because it tracks very closely with how I described the market process: a spontaneous order where all these disparate individuals with different knowledge of time and place come together and create a value bigger than themselves. And you know, we get that market process and we understand that free people can produce something tremendous and I think that the Republican establishment, the Democratic establishment, they like hierarchies, they like somebody in charge, they ultimately like somebody dictating to somebody else what to do, because then they control the message and the outcome or the process. Well this blows that whole process up. And that’s an exciting dynamic.

On the Tea Party’s evolution over the past two years.

Think about the Tea party movement in phases. First it was a protest movement, and I track that up to Sept. 12, 2009, when we had our big national gathering. Then it morphed into a get-out-the-vote-machine: still that same community, that culture of working together, but a different project. So they went out and learned a different set of skills. Now we’re in a legislative cycle, where whether it being states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Ohio, where Tea Party activists are getting very engaged in specific legislative agendas, learning how the state budget process works, learning how the debt ceiling works at the federal level, how would you repeal Obamacare -– all these very specific legislative proposals -– you see them sort of digging into the process and trying to understand how it works.

I think the longer trend –- my prediction, and this is just a prediction -– is that the Tea Party gets out of narrowly defined political space into a broader cultural space. And you see, there’s now an anti-Tea Party show off Broadway in New York City. And the Tea Party has really penetrated popular culture in both a positive and negative way. Obviously, their negatives have gone up too. But I just came back from this trip abroad and everybody all over the world wants to better understand what the Tea Party is. And before I left I spoke to a room full of ambassadors from –- there had to be at least 50 countries in the room –- and as a social phenomenon people just want to understand what this is, probably understanding that it’s a serious thing and it could impact how nations govern.

On how TV ads are a “waste” of money, and other ways that exercising political influence have changed

If you think about the old world – five years ago – a group like mine had to run top-down campaigns. And by campaign I mean an issue education campaign … And we hired a lot of field guys, and it required mass mailings and way, way back, TV ads. It’s been a long time since I’ve run ad campaigns because I don’t think they’re effective. But they used to be. It used to be the best way to do things. And over time, particularly online, you’re now able to micro-target and talk to the people that you want to talk to and at least reach out to the people you want to reach out to. Whereas a TV ad you’re primarily spending money on people that don’t want to hear your message, either don’t care or are adamantly opposed. So you really waste a lot of money on TV. But now online you at least have the potential to micro target all the people that potentially want to work with you.

HuffPost: It’s less about persuasion than it is about recruitment?

I think so. And if you read books like “The Tipping Point” or even [Saul] Alinsky’s stuff or any of the leftist’s literature on social organization, the first guy that stands up in a town hall meeting and says something that’s intelligible and passionate, pretty soon everybody starts nodding their head. And that’s, those guys are the connectors that drive issues and I do think the Tea Party movement now has -- the issues that animate the Tea party movement very much have dominated the public conversation about what’s important. We’re debating the debt. We’re debating which programs need to be cut. That’s, you know, the politics of spending have changed fundamentally, and I think it’s because the Tea Party drove that conversation from the bottom up.

HuffPost: So you’re moving away from talking at people who don’t want to hear you toward recruiting people who can then do peer-to-peer persuasion?

Yeah, so if you take it from an organizational point of view, it’s less top-down, hierarchical, talking down through a network in a fairly expensive process, to being a service center, and competing for eyeballs and small donors and activists who believe that you’re actually adding value to what they’re trying to do. So you gotta be more responsive, you gotta be more humble about convincing them that you share their values and that you’re actually trying to do something more than just take credit for their work. And that’s the test for national nonprofit organizations, whether they be think tanks or activist groups or political groups. That’s a paradigm shift too.

On how it’s no longer about the size of your e-mail list.

I used to think that having the biggest email list possible was the biggest organizational goal. And I don’t think that’s true anymore. Again, sort of respecting the autonomy of all these [Pennsylvania organizer] Ana Puig’s of the world. She’s the most credible spokesperson to her community and her community is massive. So to the extent that I can send something to Ana and she likes it and she can send it on to her folks and she says, ‘This is worth doing,’ there’s a lot more power in that than trying to get all of Ana’s guys on my e-mail list. So there’s a network effect, and it’s all about who’s the most credible spokesperson: me or [FreedomWorks Chairman and former House Speaker] Dick Armey, who they may or may not know and they may or may not like, or Ana, who they know and like and trust. So through all your communities you get some kind of a multiplier effect where they send it to all their Facebook friends or their listserv. And some of these guys have massive lists that they communicate with every week.

All these local tea party groups, they are very sophisticated local organizations out there, all over the country. And they all look a little bit different, and their leaders are a little bit different, priorities are a little bit different. But if we can connect with them, and they can choose on a voluntary basis whichever projects we think -- you know, we’re going to suggest things and they’re either going to say, ‘I like that,’ or, ‘I don’t like that.’ Some Tea Parties don’t want to do politics. I think that’s cool. Some Tea Parties just want to do politics. I think that’s fine too. The whole point of FreedomConnector [the Tea Party's Facebook-type website for connecting activists] was letting everybody sort of voluntarily choose who they want to associate with, and what issues they want to work on. So it very much respects the Tea Party ethos.

On what role the Tea Party will play in the presidential election.

I’ve always said that a potential Achilles heel for the Tea Party movement is the presidential election, because the power of the Tea Party movement comes from its leaderlessness, and if one guy screws up, we just kick them out and move on, because you’re not really dependent on one leader to always get it right. When it comes to selecting a nominee for president to run against Obama, you ultimately are stuck with one guy, right? Or one lady. So I don’t know how that works itself out. I would say at this point, on the Republican side and generally speaking in the Republican party, we had said the Tea Party movement was going to be a hostile takeover of the Republican party. Rhetorically, at least, we’ve succeeded. They’re all talking the Tea Party talk, and they’re all trying to convince independent Tea Party voters that they’re most committed to limited government values.

It’s way too early to draw any conclusions because they all have to prove themselves. So you have the more establishment governor types like Romney and Pawlenty and then you have all these, the Michele Bachmanns and Herman Cains, who, they don’t have to prove their philosophical bona fides but they have to prove that they actually can run and win in a presidential cycle. So you have this big open field and a lot of competition right now, and I’m curious to see what happens. But at least rhetorically they’re all going to say the right things, but now they kind of have to convince people that they mean it and they have the skills to lead.

At some point in the presidential there will be one candidate. And that candidate becomes the de facto leader. And if it’s John McCain the Tea Party either stays home or goes third party, probably both in an ineffective way.

On how Mitt Romney is the candidate who could splinter or suppress the Tea Party energy if he becomes the GOP nominee.

In some ways Romney looks like the Charlie Crist of this cycle: he’s got all the money, he’s got the name ID, and if it’s over by New Hampshire or South Carolina, Romney has all the strategic advantages. I think the whole idea that the guy with all the money and name ID is going to win two out of the first three primaries, I think that whole model is going to change. I would be surprised to see someone wrap it up quickly. It’s not just about money anymore. It’s about grassroots organization and an ability to organize. Who proved that first? Barack Obama proved it. While Hillary Clinton was scooping up all the Democratic party’s big donors, and buying TV ads in California, he was running an insurgent campaign in the caucus states. She had no idea what happened to her.

On how the Federalism argument (states' rights, the 10th Amendment) is still bedeviled by its use in the past by segregationists and racists, such as former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

It’s funny, because we just had an internal debate about this recently, as to whether or not states' rights carried that kind of baggage. And what’s interesting about it is that we don’t actually -- we’ve never bought federalism as the Holy Grail anyway, because states can be just as oppressive to individual rights as the federal government can be. But there is an argument for the more local impact people can have, the more accountability there is. There’s more accountability on the county council than there is on the U.S. Congress. So it hasn’t always been so much about states' rights as it has been individual rights for us. And segregation being a classic example of where that’s true. Because MLK’s fight was primarily against government-sanctioned racism. But, you know, the Constitution was written specifically –- the deal was that the states had certain rights under the 10th amendment, so when it comes to something like health care I think it makes perfect sense to be a federalist. But that doesn’t mean that states can do whatever the hell they want.

I don’t really see it as a problem. Someone had to raise it here because frankly, most Americans today don’t even remember the Civil Rights movement, and whatever arguments were used in the 50s or 60s, you know, most Tea Partiers weren’t even born yet. Obviously, our opposition is going to bring it up and try to charge us with it. I don’t think it resonates, but then again I haven’t really been banging the states' rights drum as much as individual rights. I think that’s probably the answer to the question, to focus on the individual and not the state.

On how the individual mandate is the more effective argument against President Obama’s health care reform law.

I don’t know if states' rights is a compelling argument. I’ve never tested the proposition. I think it’s compelling for that small group of us who have read the Constitution and care about the 10th Amendment. To me, the most compelling arguments against Obamacare are based on individual rights, particularly the individual mandate. To me, it’s particularly offensive. And I don’t think this is a left thing or a right thing, that we would mandate that young people, who almost by definition are more healthy, less wealthy, would be forced to buy a mandated insurance policy from a private company, to subsidize more wealthy, less healthy older people. It’s a huge transfer of wealth, and why we think that’s appropriate in the United States is just beyond me. Because once government gets into that business, the next step is to start telling people how to live. If you’re paying someone’s insurance, and it’s the taxpayer’s dime, can’t we start dictating diets and lifestyle and all that stuff that we in the United States, if you suggested it today people would say, ‘That’s crazy.’ But I just think once young people start to watch this individual mandate implemented, that they’re going to really be shocked and pissed off at what they discover. Which is why, by the way, Pharma and all the insurance companies were working with the Obama administration on this. If McDonalds could mandate that we all had to eat Big Macs for lunch, do you think they would go for that bill? Probably. I almost wonder if the individual mandate isn’t the TARP of 2012. It just became such a defining issue because of the fight over Obamacare.

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