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Tea Party Flacks Are Drill, Baby, Drill Messengers Too

Exposing how the Tea Party evolved out of the pro-offshore drilling astroturf movement in 2008, and the Koch billionaires' role in backing it.
 
 
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Why are the hoppin'-mad Teabaggers so oddly quiet these days, ever since the BP oil disaster? That's what Thomas Frank, author of What's The Matter With Kansas? asked last week in his column, "Laissez-faire Meets The Oil Spill." Ideologically, it's painfully obvious why the Teabaggers are now the Teagaggers: their free-market gospel got mugged by oil-drenched reality -- a reality so horrific that even pollster Frank Luntz couldn't spin the BP disaster as the government's fault. Best to just shut up when you're that wrong.   

But there's another, more concrete reason why the Tea Party revolutionaries melted back into their suburbs as soon as the enormity of the Gulf spill disaster hit: The Tea Party evolved out of the pro-offshore drilling astroturf movement in 2008. They even share some of the same organizers and front groups, from PR operative like Eric Odom, to advocacy groups like FreedomWorks, whose combined efforts on the "Drill Here! Drill now!" astroturf campaign succeeded in opening up all of America's coastlines and waters to offshore drilling, overturning a 27-year ban thanks to threats of "a Boston-style Tea Party," as one Republican put it in the summer of 2008.    

We have been following this movement from the beginning. Back in February 2009, on the eve of the first Tea Party protest, we published the first investigative article exposing the hidden relationship between the fake-"spontaneous" Tea Party protests that month, and the Republican machine that backed and promoted the campaign. Our research led again and again to the right-wing Koch brothers, who are worth a combined $32 billion as owners of the largest private oil company in America, Koch Industries. Koch-linked front groups like FreedomWorks and the Sam Adams Alliance (named after the leader of the original Boston Tea Party) played key roles in both the 2008 campaign to deregulate offshore drilling, and in the Tea Party movement. 

Eric Odom, the PR flak who launched the Tea Party in February 2009, is the same Eric Odom who in August 2008 organized Republican Twitter-mobs who crashed Capitol Hill chanting "Drill here! Drill now!" to force Congress to open up American coastlines to unrestricted offshore oil drilling. Odom used the same Twitter front group, "DontGo Movement," in both campaigns: Twittering the pro-offshore drilling mobs in 2008 and Twittering the first anti-Obama teabaggers in early 2009. Odom was listed as the "New Media Coordinator" for the Sam Adams Alliance until a few days before the very Tea Party Protest in 2009. 

If these organization names get confusing, then just remember this: What really matters is the money behind them -- namely, the billionaire Koch money. Since we first broke the Koch-Tea Party links, other media and research outlets have confirmed the Kochs'  key funding and organization role in the Tea Party campaign, as well as defeating climate change legislation and defeating health care reform. The Kochs are the largest oil & gas contributors to the last few electoral campaigns, and their network of fronts and think tanks is daunting.  

One Koch-linked front group is The Sam Adams Alliance, led by a longtime Koch aide named Eric O'Keefe. Back in 1980, when David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket, Eric O'Keefe served as the National Coordinator for Koch's Libertarian Party. O'Keefe has been sucking on the Koch teat ever since -- moving from the Libertarian Party to the Koch-funded Cato Institute, and finally, to the Sam Adams Alliance, where O'Keefe is the CEO.   

At first the Kochs denied they were behind the Tea Party campaign, but by the end of 2009, David Koch finally owned up and told an audience how he had planned and funded the Tea Party movement.  

It's important to understand just how close the Tea Party campaign is tied to the campaign pushing for unlimited offshore drilling, because the media has consistently misunderstood and misrepresented the Tea Party movement at every step of the way, treating the Tea Party like a legitimate political movement, rather than what it really is: a well-funded and highly-manipulative PR campaign, paid for and led by right-wing billionaires looking to protect their riches from government regulators and taxes. The Tea Party only exists as long as the Kochs need it to run; once the billionaires' needs change, they'll close the account out and get onto other business, dumping all the suckers who volunteered their time and Ayn Rand-inspired placards until they're needed again sometime in the future.

To understand how this works, let's go back again to the summer of 2008, the last time there were still restrictions on offshore oil drilling in America. How did it happen that we lifted all offshore drilling restrictions less than two years ago? Strange to believe now, but two summers ago, drilling became the "wedge issue" for the presidential campaign, the way gay marriage was in 2004. In August 2008, for reasons unclear at the time, nothing got the Republican base more quickly worked up for a fight than the fight to open up all of America's coasts and waters to all the drilling that Big Oil wanted.

Before it turned Tea Party, the pro-offshore drilling campaign was led by the disgraced Newt Gingrich, via his billionaire-sponsored foundation, American Solutions. It was a pretty typical lobbying effort until August 1, when the Republicans seemed to go off the handle, and a bunch of DC Beltway foundation trolls took to the streets threatening tea party revolt. 

By mid-August 2008, the Wall Street Journal asked, "Why Does Offshore Drilling Dominate the Debate?":   

How on earth, in the middle of a war and an economic slowdown, did a handful of offshore oil rigs come to be the wedge issue of American politics?  

And make no mistake--new oil drilling is the wedge. Republicans have shown 80-90% support for any drilling proposal; Democrats are equally opposed. Bob Herbert in the NYT compares drilling's wool-over-the-eyes allure to the persistent belief in Iraqi involvement in Sept. 11. Offshore drilling has resuscitated [sic] Newt Gingrich, and ruined Nancy Pelosi's summer. It made Sen. Barack Obama, the "agent of change," change his mind. And it derailed the Straight Talk Express. 

Suddenly, the entire election hinged on offshore drilling, and the Democrats got it in their heads that if they didn't compromise, they'd lose the 2008 election. It must have seemed strange to them -- the Republicans dragged America into two military defeats back-to-back, and left the economy destroyed on a scale not seen in almost a century. But the Democrats were scared as they usually are, and by the end of September, both the House and Senate voted to lift the ban on offshore drilling for gas and oil. 

The last part of the campaign happened so fast, it seemed plausibly spontaneous and grassroots. Before Odom and the Twitter mobs, the push for offshore drilling was much more traditional: several months of Newt Gingrich's backroom efforts and mailers and ads pushing for offshore oil drilling. And then came the surprise: On August 1, 2008, Republicans staged a publicity stunt to take over the floor of the House just a few hours after lawmakers had voted to adjourn for their five-week summer break. The Republicans said they were protesting Speaker Pelosi's decision to go home without voting on offshore drilling.

According to an AP report from the time:

Republicans occupied the House floor for a rare, and at times bizarre, protest against Democratic energy policies. 
 
Unlike a normal session where the rules of decorum are strictly enforced, GOP lawmakers and their aides who filled the chamber clapped, chanted, gave standing ovations and booed the Democrats.

In a grand finale, lawmakers led a roomful of aides in a rendition of "God Bless America" and walked off to chants of "USA, USA." 
 
The event, said Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, one of the organizers with Reps. Mike Pence of Indiana and Tom Price of Georgia, was "the equivalent of the Boston Tea Party over the energy issue." 
 
Republicans are angry that Democrats blocked them from a vote on allowing more offshore oil drilling and increasing domestic oil supplies.

This was the launch of the first Tea Party. And a key figure in the August campaign was Eric Odom, new media coordinator from the Koch-affiliated Sam Adams Alliance. Odom also used DontGo Movement to twitter together "grassroots" supporters to back the Republican sit-in on August 1.  

Odom's job was to make it look like a spontaneous outburst of middle-class support was joining forces with the Republican politicians in Congress, who fused together in one great oil-drilling movement. This way it would appear to out-of-touch Democrats that the pro-oil-drilling movement was really catching on with regular Americans angry at high gas prices, which they blamed on liberal eco-elitists in Washington, rather than on Bush's two lost wars, and the trashed American economy. 

Twittering was new at the time; and Odom's twitter-campaign worked better than anyone could have expected. He launched his DontGo Movement on August 1, and a few days later, it was already on CNN: 

Conservative online activists launch 'DontGo' Web site 

Posted: August 5th, 2008 

(CNN) - A group of conservative online activists launched a new Web site Tuesday to support a call by House Republicans to reconvene Congress and vote on an energy bill.

The site, dontgomovement.com, is intended to be a clearinghouse for information about a protest House Republicans began Friday soon after Congress adjourned for its August recess. More than 1100 people have signed up for an e-mail distribution list associated with the site since a preliminary splash page for it went up on the Internet Monday, according to Eric Odom, one of the organizers behind dontgomovement.com.

From there, more Koch-connected groups piled in, including FreedomWorks, the lead Tea Party organizers. In early August, FreedomWorks employees hit the Washington streets carrying signs reading, "Drill! Drill! Drill!" telling reporters "that most Americans support expanded domestic drilling."   

Nan Swift, Campaign Coordinator for FreedomWorks, was so psyched about protesting for offshore oil drilling that day that she quickly posted a "stay tuned!" announcement on the FreedomWorks site:

GAS PRICE PROTEST PROTEST

By Nan Swift on Aug 06, 2008

On Tuesday FreedomWorks joined with area allies to counter MoveOn's demonstration for an "Oil-Free Presidency." Try Economy-Free. At any rate, the whole write-up will be on up over at FreedomWorks.org soon as part of our weekly campaign update. In the meantime, I wanted to make sure you got to see these great links to other people who wrote, took pictures, and great video. Enjoy.


 By late September, the pressure was too much for Pelosi to bear, and Congress caved to Nan Swift's "Drill! Drill!" protest. 

The campaign was a boon to Eric Odom and to FreedomWorks and gave them the know-how to run the bigger Tea Party campaign later. Gingrich the public face of the "Drill Here Drill Now!" campaign, was the only figure in that campaign who got mugged by reality: on September 23, 2008 -- the same day Gingrich published his pro-offshore drilling manifesto Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less -- Republican heavyweights led by Vice President Dick Cheney were marching around Capitol Hill scaring members into passing a bill far more urgent than the offshore drilling bill championed by Newt, FreedomWorks, and the Koch brothers: the $700 billion Bush Bailout bill. Just to refresh your memory, here's a quick excerpt from the Wall Street Journal that day: 

White House spokesman Tony Fratto said top administration officials -- Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and National Economic Council Director Keith Hennessey -- were lobbying members of Congress Tuesday, including the House of Representative's conservative Republican Study Group. 

The economic collapse and Bush-Cheney billionaire bailouts put Gingrich's big comeback on hold. But ironically enough, the Bush-Cheney bailouts provided Bush-Cheney supporters something new to protest in 2009: the Bush-Cheney bailouts now that President Obama claimed them as his own, and piled trillions more of his own bailouts on top of it.

For some reason, the story of how the Tea Party began as the Offshore-Drilling Party has been forgotten or ignored by the media. But the people inside the movement sure know where the Tea Party started, and until the BP disaster, they were damn proud. For example, a leader of the St. Louis Tea Party, Dana Loesch -- known as the "female Michael Savage" by her Tea Party admirers -- triumphantly recounted the oil-drilling beginnings of the Tea Party movement last year on Andrew Breitbart's Big Government site: 

The Tea Party Movement: How We Got Here 
by Dana Loesch 

Something curious happened during the summer of 2008. Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, shut down the House and C-SPAN cameras with a resolution that passed by just one vote, smack in the middle of an energy crisis. Afterwards, Madame Speaker jetted off on a week-long book tour while gas prices soared. 

The Republicans stood in the dark and refused to leave. A few officials, including John Culberson, took out their phones and began Twittering the action to America, this spawning the #dontgo movement. It was the first nudge to the hibernating conservative constituency who were excited about having something over which to be excited in their party. Netroots activists seethed at the realization that Democrats left America in limbo rather than vote against reducing energy costs and drilling stateside - though the majority of the population approved of such. They rallied around the legislators that had the brass to stay and urged them to "Don't go!"

Taxpayer fury over these offenses grew to a shriek in February when Rick Santelli delivered his famous diatribe on the floor of the Chicago exchange. The feelings of angry disenfranchisement felt by so many conservatives coalesced following Santelli's speech.  

On February 19, 2009, the DontGo Movement morphed into the Tea Party thanks to the "Tea Party Rant" by CNBC's Rick Santelli, a self-described follower of Ayn Rand, who suffered a spaz attack on live television after hearing that President Obama was proposing bailout funds to non-billionaire Americans facing foreclosure. Santelli was fine with the trillions in bailout funds wired to the Wall Street Galts whose shoes he shines for a living. But when Obama offered a bailout of $75 billion in mortgage relief to middle-class Americans, Santelli had a freak-out. Standing in the Chicago exchange floor with all of his derivatives-trading pals, the CNBC tool shouted that he and his casino traders were "fed up" and called for a "Chicago Tea Party" to protest the federal government's bailout of struggling homeowners. "This is America!" Santelli screamed, pointing to his rich derivatives-trading broker friends -- who trade the same derivatives that brought down the American economy and pushed millions of Americans into foreclosure.

At the time, we called into question the "spontaneity" of Santelli's rant, seeing instead a typical "launch event" in a coordinated PR campaign designed to look spontaneous. We also wrote about all the links between Santelli's rant, the fan-sites that popped up registered to various Republican fronts including Eric Odom, and further up the chain, familiar Republican free-market operatives, from Dick Armey's FreedomWorks to the Sam Adams Alliance, and Eric Odom's Twittering DontGo front. Many of the instantly-activated sites promoting Santelli's rant that we traced were registered in Chicago -- where Santelli, Eric Odom, and the Sam Adams Alliance were all based. Within days of our expose, Santelli was forced to post an excruciating apology to President Obama on CNBC's, site, and he canceled his appearance on the Jon Stewart Show. He's kept his tea to himself ever since.

The money link between the campaign for offshore drilling and the Tea Party campaign was the billionaire Koch brothers and their private oil behemoth, Koch Industries, America's second-largest private company and one of the country's worst oil polluters. 

The Kochs had good reason to back both offshore drilling and the Tea Party movement, and then want to hush it all up after the BP spill: that's because Koch Industries has a history of horrific oil spills right here in America.

Greenpeace recently published a list of Koch Industries disasters, which reads like a crime dossier on deregulation. Last year, for example, a Koch subsidiary was ordered to pay out half a billion dollars to fix environmental violations; while a decade ago, in 2000, Koch was fined for causing 300 spills and charted with releasing 91 tons of a known carcinogen from a Texas Refinery, leading to a $350 million fine (which Bush Attorney General John Ashcroft discounted down to $20 million). And just a few weeks ago, the Dallas Morning News reported that the EPA took over the licensing process from Texas for a Koch refinery, which is accused of gross violations of the Clean Air Act.

So let's go over this again: Not only was the Tea Party movement supported by oil industry money, especially Koch Industries, but it was organized by the same people who Tea Partied Congress into opening up America's coastline to unlimited oil drilling. The Tea Party did that -- they manipulated and frightened Washington into giving them all the pristine American coastline that a billionaire could ever dream of poisoning, and then some. On top of that, the free-market advocacy groups at the center of the Tea Party movement are responsible for the systematic destruction of government regulation, which made a disaster like the Gulf spill inevitable. 

So remember that when you look at the poisoned Gulf of Mexico, and the ruined beaches of Florida: That's the Tea Party Vision turned into our reality. The gang running the Tea Party movement has some direct responsibility for the catastrophe unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, maybe more so than BP itself. No wonder the Tea Party crowd is staying out of sight and hoping everyone's forgotten. They've been talking about dumping tea, but all along they've been dumping oil, and now we're finding out just how "maverick" and "anti-establishment" their movement really is. 

Keep this in mind the next time the mainstream media sucks up to the Teabaggers as some sort of "authentic America" anti-establishment movement: it was born in offshore oil drilling, and America is now dying from offshore drilling.   

 
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