Everything I know about being a good consultant comes from Fight Club. Discretion is everything. Rule number one is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. Rule number two is you don’t talk about consulting for the Tea Party. The story about the wild characters who are shaping this campaign cycle is worth telling, but please excuse my anonymity.
I hold as many meetings as possible over Tanqueray and tonics at the St. Regis hotel on K Street in Washington, D.C. The bar is dark and private, with comfortable couches. Even the gin tastes better there. On weekday afternoons the only people in the bar are foreigners and political consultants long past caring about who actually wins.
"You’re going to see something spectacular," an old friend who has a knack for black-bag operations said as he proudly downed his vodka. "About a month from now you’ll see ACORN explode from within." Right on schedule a video was released that showed undercover conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles getting advice from employees at the Baltimore office of the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now on how to smuggle underage El Salvadoran girls into a fictitious brothel.
That’s when I realized this isn’t an average fringe movement. This one is credible, legit and—for the first time in a decade—scaring the crap out of the left. In my years as a campaign hack and then as a consultant, I’ve created more than my share of fake grassroots organizations. Some were downright evil but effective beyond expectations. Did you get an automated call from the sister of a 9/11 victim asking you to reelect President Bush in 2004? That was me. Did you get a piece of mail with the phrase supports abortion on demand as a means of birth control? That may have been me too.
Conservatives had been trying to take down ACORN for three decades. Where they failed, BigGovernment.com and my friends succeeded. In one magnificent explosion, a loose group of troublemakers, libertarians and Republicans took its first scalp. Sonja Merchant-Jones, former co-chair of ACORN’s Maryland chapter, told The New York Times in March, "That 20-minute video ruined 40 years of good work."
The ACORN blood tasted good. Shortly after, a core group of about 30 of us convened for the first time. It was the kind of conference call during which no one, except the handful with nothing to lose, offered last names. But it didn’t matter. I’d been around long enough to know many of the people by voice. Most of our talk was devoted to rants about the K Street lobbyists who are ruining the GOP. There I sat, in the quiet corner of a coffee shop on K Street, listening to a conference call beating the shit out of the people who keep me in business.
The cynical among us think it’s a group of peasants with pitchforks controlled by an underground cabal of Glenn Beck, wealthy donors and the guys who killed JFK. But the worst thing I can say about the Tea Party I work for is that it can make lots of noise but can’t win without professional help. I love the irony of helping run this organization from the St. Regis Bar.
This cause is worthier and more real than anything I’ve done in the past. I’m all in. When I met the colorful characters behind the organization, I was really all in. None of them were prom king, none went to college east of the Appalachians (even the Jews), and a lot of them smoke a pack a day just because they’re not supposed to. Unlike most of the tired, airbrushed conservatives living in D.C., the homegrown activists I work with are the real deal. They may not read much, but they all know their Ayn Rand. Backcountry rubes they are not. They have tattoos, even tramp stamps. My favorite is on Katie O’Malley, the executive director of Ensuring Liberty Corporation: Ronald Wilson Reagan, 1911–2004.
I get out of Washington whenever possible, especially during tourist season. In late spring I visited a Tea Party rally in suburban St. Louis. It was what you would imagine: angst-ridden Caucasians sitting in lawn chairs with signs such as My daughter is nine and already $41,000 in debt. It was not an angry crowd, and in all candor I never heard a racist word uttered.
The speeches went on for hours. The sun was shining. It was the kind of day when you could take a nap under a tree. The organizer had personally delivered about a thousand activists. It was her big day. Two hours into the speeches she sat down on the warm grass next to me at the back of the rally and said, "This is the perfect day. Now all I need is a joint." That tells you everything you need to know about my friends.
We are tremendously plugged in to BigGovernment.com and its stable of writers. Our news cycle is measured in minutes, not days. Combine the DNA of a flash mob, a news addict and a conservative who feels betrayed by the spending excesses of George W. Bush, sprinkle in some anxiety and you’ve got my people.
The campaign plan for one of the organizations I help uses the phrase black arts when talking about how we’ll win in the fall. It’s not a document filled with dirty tricks but a plan to create a nonprofit organization called Ensuring Liberty Corporation. It uses unconventional methods to get our message out and support grassroots conservatives: "Ensuring Liberty’s relationships run deep into the new media and use of cloud computing and innovation along with the black arts of campaign management. That is not to say that [we] will undertake actions that contravene any legal or ethical principles; however, the use of surprise, investigative journalism and other key experience will allow for rapid deployment of strategies that many candidates simply do not understand or take advantage of during their actual election campaign." Of course, the Tea Party is not as cohesive as anyone thinks. It’s not a party or even an organization. You have to understand the state of the Republican Party to understand how there can still be oxygen in the room for the Tea Party. Bush mangled the GOP brand into a grotesque form that conservatives haven’t recognized in five years.