- - Thursday, July 5, 2012

By Matt Kibbe
William Morrow, $26.99, 416 pages

There’s no better reason than the Tea Party for conservatives to be excited heading into November. Initially dismissed as a passing fad, the Tea Party has secured a prominent place in the debate and pushed our politics in a more fiscally conservative direction.

One characterization that always has haunted the Tea Party, however, is that it’s not truly a grass-roots operation - that it’s an “AstroTurf” project by interest groups in Washington, D.C., such as the libertarian organization FreedomWorks. For its part, FreedomWorks helps Tea Party groups put events together, but it insists that no puppet master could truly control such an organic and diverse group of people. In “Hostile Takeover,” FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe gives an insider’s take on how the Tea Party got where it is - and the policies it must embrace to take its message further.

The story of the Tea Party’s rise to prominence is a fascinating one filled with small triumphs and big obstacles overcome. In “Hostile Takeover,” Mr. Kibbe tells of the congressional bigwigs who tried to shut down a Tea Party event - and of the lesser bureaucrats who worked their hardest to make smaller local rallies harder to pull off. Each time, the Tea Party worked to make sure its members’ voices were heard while respecting the rights and property of others - an approach that sets it apart from the rather less respectful Occupy Wall Street, a movement Mr. Kibbe sees as a poor imitation of the efforts in which he took part.

The Tea Party has made a real difference in electoral politics. The movement led to the rise of a few failed candidates, such as Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, but it also galvanized fiscal conservatives throughout the country and led to the prominence of superstars including Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. And in stark contrast to the way things normally work, the Tea Party created a bidding war among Republicans to see who could come up with the budget with the biggest cuts.

Of course, none of those budgets has become law yet, so there is much left for the Tea Party to accomplish. Toward this end, Mr. Kibbe dedicates a number of chapters to his views on public policy, the underlying theme of which is that people should be allowed to decide things for themselves - societies should be organized from the bottom up by individuals, not from the top down by the government. With this in mind, he offers detailed thoughts on everything from health care to monetary policy.

There’s plenty of room to criticize Mr. Kibbe; for example, he is overly optimistic that school choice will increase test scores. Nevertheless, “Hostile Takeover” stands as a bold statement of where the Tea Party has been and where it might go.

There is one small, but important, aspect of the Tea Party Mr. Kibbe gets wrong. Several times he presents the movement as a voice of mainstream America that’s trying to address the real root of our fiscal problems: Washington, D.C., where the two parties “collude” to shake down ordinary people. There are two problems with this framing of the situation: Washington is not the root of the problem, and the Tea Party represents just a minority of Americans (and a minority whose members often are misinformed, at that).

It’s true that there is collusion in Washington between Big Business Republicans and Big Government Democrats. Mr. Kibbe highlights plenty of examples: the bailouts, the scam of “green energy” subsidies, etc. But the bigger problems are the major entitlements: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are handouts not to businesses, but to ordinary people, and if they’re left unreformed, soon they will consume all the revenue the Treasury takes in.

To his great credit, Mr. Kibbe talks at length about how to reform entitlements. But when he presents Washington as the problem, he ignores the fact that it was ordinary people who elected the representatives who created these programs and happily cashed their checks as the programs paid out more than they took in. Ordinary people still oppose the deep cuts the programs need to survive. To the extent that Washington is to blame for entitlements, it is because Washington failed to stand up to the people, not because it conspired against them.

And while the Tea Party is quite sizable and impressive, it hardly can be described as the rise of a previously silent majority. Polls show that roughly half of Americans have no opinion of the Tea Party and the other half is sharply divided as to whether the Tea Party is a good thing or a bad thing.

Finally, it’s not clear that even self-identified Tea Party members are willing to do what it takes to rein in entitlements; many of them support fiscal responsibility in the abstract but oppose what’s needed to make it happen. The New York Times and other lefty rags have had a ball quoting participants in Tea Party rallies who depend on entitlements and don’t want to see them cut - “Keep your government hands off my Medicare,” as a Tea Partyer’s infamous sign said. The glee with which these quotes are reported is typical coastal-privileged snobbery. But the quotes themselves reveal a weakness at the heart of the Tea Party.

Yet there is great strength there, too. By capturing the Republican party by force, the Tea Party has made fiscal conservatism a part of the conversation again. In “Hostile Takeover,” Matt Kibbe advances the conversation a great deal.

Robert VerBruggen is a deputy managing editor of National Review.

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