In just the last year, the Tea Party movement has become a driving force in American politics. From debates over healthcare and federal stimulus spending to voter mobilization for the midterm elections, Tea Party groups have not been shy about showing their anger at the state of government. Still, as a movement with a growing number of community organizers speaking with many voices, much of the country is left wondering: What is the Tea Party movement really all about? In Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and economist Matt Kibbe try to more clearly define the movement's ideological foundation and practical goals. Armey is the chairman of FreedomWorks, a small-government advocacy organization, and Kibbe is the group's president and CEO. They have played an important, behind-the-scenes role in the Tea Party endeavor from the start. Armey recently spoke to U.S. News about what he considers to be the factors driving Tea Partyers. Excerpts:
What's your role as a leader in a movement that says it is leaderless?
I don't think there is any doubt that FreedomWorks has been the most effective grassroots organization for small government [and] fiscal responsibility in this country for some time. We were already existent before the Rick Santelli rant [on CNBC] sort of gave birth to the massive, new, emergent Tea Party movement. These folks across the country said, "We know now we've got to find some way to demonstrate our concern." Their first question was: "How do we do this?" Then they discovered us. So, we developed a mentoring relationship to these folks.
What constitutional rights do you think have been violated most by the government?
If you talk to Tea Party activists, they will say that our forefathers understood that the greatest threat to liberty in this country is an overbearing and oversized government. Comprehensively, our government is too big and too meddlesome. Not only did the activists see the Obama healthcare takeover as a heavy-handed legislative exercise but also as one in which the government was bankrupting our grandchildren's future in order to dictate to us the terms of our medical care. So they felt, "Well, my personal liberty, my right to be free to choose for myself how I will handle and fund my medical care, is being denied by a government that's going broke. For what reason? I don't think this is about my healthcare, I think this is about their power. And they're being very ruthless."
Do you think Democrats believed they were helping people get healthcare?
No, I don't think the people who pushed the national healthcare takeover were principally motivated by a desire to see America as a nation of healthier people. They're principally motivated by a desire to see themselves as a government more in control of a larger part of America's normal, everyday life. Don't tell me that's about my health; that's about your power.
You dismiss viewing the Constitution as a "living document" and argue that it should be interpreted just as the framers wrote it.
There were 58 men who wrote the Constitution. They were extremely literate and disciplined people. Not one single word or phrase got in that Constitution by accident. My challenge to the liberals in America—the living-document, modern-day smart alecks—is: You find me 58 people in America today that you can put together in a room, and who have a combined intellect and courage equal to that which was at the constitutional convention. I'll give you some latitude to second-guess [the founders]. But you can't do that.
How well has the media represented the Tea Party movement?
One of the things that we were struck by when we had the September 12 march last year was the number of good, able, honest reporters in the media that showed up afterward and said, "Our paper has been missing this story. We hadn't really seen what this was." They thought it was just a smattering of more or less cranky people around the country. Then, all of a sudden, they began walking among these folks, talking to these people, sitting down with them, going to their meetings and listening to them, and saying, "Hey, these are the most ordinary people in America, and there's sure a lot of them."
You say you're staging a "hostile takeover" of the Republican Party. How?
We need to help the Republican Party rehabilitate itself to become once again the party of great ideas for America—as it was with Ronald Reagan. So we're not just going to fall in and become the auxiliary movement for the party. We're going to say to the Republican Party: "If you can rise to the occasion of our high ideals and our appreciation for documents of enormous impact in the world, like the American Constitution, we will work with you for the election of Republican candidates." And we've done that. In fact, we've already had a fairly substantial impact on who are the candidates that are running for Congress as Republicans in this election cycle.