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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

The Influence of the Tea Party on the Presidential Election

Matt Kibbe, President and CEO of FreedomWorks
Tampa, Florida
August 29, 2012

1:00 P.M. EDT


MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce our second briefer of today. his name is Matt Kibbe and he is the founder and CEO of FreedomWorks, an organization that he’s been at for 15 years. He’s also been called by Newsweek as one of the masterminds of Tea Party politics, and that’s why we’ve invited him today. He will speak to you briefly and then take your questions.

Mr. Kibbe.

MR. KIBBE: Thank you, and thanks for having me. Thanks for joining us today. I thought I’d talk about a couple things specifically that FreedomWorks has been up to, that the Tea Party has been up to, and our presence at this convention, and how that represents a more global trend away from the top-down systems that political parties have always used, particularly at conventions.

First of all, the platform. We did something that we have done with Tea Party activists for quite some time, starting in 2009. We crowd-sourced a number of ideas on the internet, basically soliciting votes and opinions from a total of 1.2 million votes what should be in the Republican platform. This is the same process we used in 2010 to create the Contract From America, which was another crowd-sourced document driven by the bottom-up grassroots opinions about what they wanted to see candidates run on in 2010. We did it earlier this year with something called the Tea Party Debt Commission, where we asked activists to say what their priorities were when it comes to balancing the budget. And we actually forced them to make tough choices between various constituencies and various programs in the federal budget.

With the platform, we again asked people to make those decisions. We took the top 12 issues to the platform committee. We actually created a delegation of 12 Tea Parties, since it is 2012. We had 12 issues and 12 Tea Party leaders. And they came to the platform committee deliberations last week. They testified before the committee. They lobbied the various members of the platform committee, and we think they had a good hearing. A lot of the ideas that they proposed, including some new ones like auditing the Federal Reserve, have now become part of the Republican platform. And this is one acknowledgement of the impact that grassroots Americans are having on the political process, and I think it’s interesting and it suggests a trend in the future where more and more ideas will be drawn democratically, drawn from the bottom up, solicited online, driven by not a central committee. And I think that’s part of the clash you’re seeing. I don’t know if anyone has paid attention to the rules fight that started on Friday and culminated yesterday with some pretty boisterous activity on the convention floor, but that really represented what I think is a fundamental transformation of politics, not just in the United States. I think it’s a global trend. You now have citizens who have access to multiple sources of information. They have an ability to connect with each other through social media. And it makes the old top-down structures like the Republican National Committee a little bit less relevant, a little less in control of the process. The same thing’s going on with the Democratic Party right now. It started in 2008 with the Obama campaign.

And I think this is an interesting – forget your politics for a second, forget what your policy – favorite policy positions are. The process by which more citizens participate in the process is a really fascinating one, and I happen to think that the Tea Party is at the cutting edge of this. The Tea Party talks about individual responsibility. We talk about freedom and free markets and voluntary association. Well, that same free market perspective on things is exactly what’s going on in the political process. And when the committee lawyers come in at the last minute and try to change the rules of the game to give the candidate more control over the delegates, it is immediately Tweeted out, and within – literally within minutes you had a community of millions of millions of people finding out what’s going on, starting to lobby all of the state leaders of the Republican delegations, and really created a fundamentally different dynamic than you would have in the past. It used to be that the insiders set the rules and nobody knew what happened until after the process was over.

So there’s this paradigm shift going on. There’s this clash between this huge bottom-up presence. You saw it in the convention speeches last night. You saw the traditional stump speeches that really said nothing about nothing except – and then we’re going to elect Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. And that’s what conventions usually have, one speech after another that says the same thing. Instead, you saw representatives of various grassroots constituencies like Mia Love, who got her start with the Tea Party in Utah, like Ted Cruz, who beat a very well-funded establishment Republican that no one thought he could beat from the bottom up using grassroots support. Ted Cruz was allowed to talk about his agenda. Chris Christie was allowed to talk about his agenda – another rising star that got his start post 2009, post grassroots decentralization, post Tea Party.

And I think it’s fascinating to see that this isn’t just about the candidate anymore. It’s not all about Mitt Romney. It’s not all about waiting for the top of the ticket to drive down-ballot voting. It’s more decentralized now. And not everybody is comfortable with that, but just I think it’s a fascinating process and I happen to think that it’s good if you believe in freedom if you believe in citizen accountability of government. This really empowers citizens to have a bigger impact.

I think I’ll stop there, and I’m happy to talk more about FreedomWorks. We’re – essentially think of us as a service center that helps citizens who want to engage in the process. We have a political committee that prints yard signs and bumper stickers and helps anybody that wants to do get-out-the-vote. We don’t run TV ads. We go to the activists in the communities, like we’ll have a meeting here in Florida in just a couple hours with a lot of the activist leaders here in the state about the Presidential race, about the Senate race, about a number of House races. And our relationship with them is responsive. We don’t tell them what to do. We ask them what they want to do; and if we agree on certain goals, we help them by providing resources, by providing support. This is the new model. This is – it’s almost a customer service model. And that’s what FreedomWorks does. I think that’s why we’re effective.

Let’s open it up for questions, if anybody has any.

QUESTION: Thomas Gorguissian, Al Tahrir, Egyptian daily newspaper. My first question is regarding you focused in your last part of your speech about the process.

MR. KIBBE: Yeah.

QUESTION: And most of the time, people, especially the media, the American media, focusing on the outcome of the policies. And I don’t know if it’s serving or not serving your point of view.

MR. KIBBE: Yeah.

QUESTION: Second question: What does the world means for the party people? I mean, usually are focusing about the budget, about social issues, about social values, but we – in the rest of the world we don’t know too much about how do you see the world. Or you prefer isolations?

MR. KIBBE: Yeah. These are two related questions. I think first of all, the goals that are fairly consistent across all these disparate organizations – and they all call themselves different things. They don’t all call themselves Tea Party groups. And you have the Ron Paul faction and you have a lot of different views on foreign policy in particular, everywhere from what I would call libertarian to traditional conservative in terms of our engagement in the world.

But the thing that unites all of these constituencies is a commitment to limited government. They believe in individual responsibility. They believe in individual freedom. And if you were to randomly ask any Tea Partier why they showed up, the first thing they would say is the government’s spending too much money it doesn’t have and the government’s getting too involved in things like healthcare, things like bailing out auto companies. And that’s why they got involved. They would also tell you, by the way, that they got involved out of frustration with Republicans, not as a first response to the election of Barack Obama.

And I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about this. This is not a partisan movement. This is a movement that has a certain amount of distrust for both political parties, and the basic philosophy is if you show up, if you create citizen pressure, a constituency to reform, then politicians will respond to that incentive. They’re not going to do the right thing just because they said they would. They’re not going to balance the budget left to their own devices because there’s always interests that show up in Washington insisting that they do exactly that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the person who, let’s say whose – and whose support to get rid of him beside being out of the – his state, he was one of the references in international efforts.

MR. KIBBE: Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: Richard Lugar.

MR. KIBBE: It’s – the question is how does the Tea Party view foreign policy and world affairs, and there is no consensus on that. There is everything from Ron Paul isolationism to Marco Rubio traditional conservative engagement on foreign policy. Generally speaking, Dick Lugar did not lose because any position he had on foreign policy. It was very much a challenge on domestic policy. So I don’t think you can draw any particular conclusions, frankly. I think we would have a heated argument about it if we all got together and tried to establish what the foreign policy of the Tea Party was.

QUESTION: Hi, (inaudible) from Japan’s Mainichi newspaper. Jeff Flake won primary yesterday. Before him, Ted Cruz, Richard Mourdoch. Tea Party movement has been successfully helped to get conservative Senate candidates nominated, so I’m wondering how these Senate races play out with Presidential election. It can help Mitt Romney, but some might argue that it actually hurts Mitt Romney because Tea Party activists pay too much attention to Senate race, not the Presidential election. So what is your sense?

MR. KIBBE: That’s a great question, and it is a historical accident that virtually every Senate race, every state where there is a competitive Senate race right now, happens to be the same states that Barack Obama won, swing states that made Barack Obama President in 2008. It happens to be places where the Tea Party had an inordinate impact in 2010, and it’s also the place where Mitt Romney will win if he wins. And we’re in Florida. Florida is a great example of that. I would call Florida a Tea Party state. They substantially transformed the makeup of the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, a number of congressional seats in 2010. There’s a Senate pickup. Connie Mack is running for the Senate. If he beats Nelson, that becomes a seat that becomes part of that new Republican majority if it happens.

The way this process works – and a lot of other states – Ohio would be another classic example of that, Pennsylvania might be an example of that, certainly Virginia would be an example of that, and maybe even Wisconsin and states like that. All of these things overlay quite nicely. So if the Republicans want to hold the House, these states matter a lot. If Republicans want to pick up the Senate, these states matter a lot. And we’re well-positioned in those states to have an impact.

In grassroots politics, it’s not about TV ads. It’s about door-to-door get-out-the-vote. So if you’re walking precincts and mobilizing your neighbors, you can literally work on a House seat, a Senate seat, and a Presidential campaign at the exact same time.

QUESTION: Hello, Marta Torres from La Razon newspaper from Spain. What do you expect of Paul Ryan’s speech tonight? Do you think he’s going to speak in Tea Party language, or he’s going to try to reach a bigger audience?

MR. KIBBE: I think he does both, and that’s really what makes him an interesting choice. He is attractive to Tea Partiers. He’s certainly not perfect, based on all of the votes we care about, but he knows how to connect with Tea Parties because here’s a guy that actually offered a budget, here’s a guy that actually proposed some difficult decisions on federal spending. But he has always done so in a swing district in his home state of Wisconsin. His district is no longer competitive, but it should be competitive because it leans – it’s a working-class labor district, it leans a little bit Democrat. And yet he has been willing to talk about Medicare. He’s been willing to talk about tough budget decisions in his district.

So I suspect what you’ll hear tonight is someone that can connect with activists, can connect with swing voters and the Republican faithful all at the same time. That’s what makes him a great choice.

QUESTION: Hello, Marco (inaudible) from (inaudible) Spain. Some person from the Romney team said that Mitt Romney is the Tea Party. I don’t know if you heard this quote.

MR. KIBBE: I have not heard that quote.

QUESTION: Well, he said he’s a businessman, he’s away from Washington, he really has the profile of a Tea Party candidate. I wonder what is your opinion on all this.

MR. KIBBE: That’s a bit of a stretch, but I also think that part of the Tea Party ethos – it’s not so personality driven. And I think this ultimately will prove to be the grassroots organization around Obama’s fundamental weakness. It was built around a person. It was really a cult of personality that believed that Obama was perfect. And guess what. Politicians aren’t perfect. And when you discover that when they’re in office, that’s a fundamental flaw to that grassroots movement.

The Tea Party movement is not built around a person. It’s not built around Mitt Romney certainly, but it’s not built around anybody else as well. It’s build around a set of ideas. And that’s why it has sustained itself beyond a lot of folks’ expectations. Mitt Romney has an opportunity to appeal to those voters, and we’ll see what he says tomorrow night. But I think – now, you could say that Ted Cruz is a Tea Party guy. Mitt Romney’s not quite there yet.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIBBE: Okay.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. KIBBE: Okay, thank you.

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