Prior to February 19, 2009, CNBC was an obscure niche network watched mainly inside Merrill Lynch offices. The network would never have been chosen to host and moderate a Presidential debate solo (although it tagged along with MSNBC once in 2007.)
At the same point, in February 2009, the term tea party was only a vague memory out of middle school history – with no particular relevance to politics today – with the exception of a few mentions by Ron Paul that never resonated widely.
Meanwhile, crony capitalism (or crony socialism or cronyism if you prefer) was a problem, but it was not threatening to to swallow the entire economy whole. It had not yet completely erased any remaining differences between the Democrats and the Republican establishment agendas. It was kind of practiced in the dark and certainly not celebrated openly.
That all started to change shortly after 9 am EST that day, and it’s no coincidence. These dynamics are connected dominos in a media/political continuum. So how did this all happen?
Enter a dude named Rick Santelli. The then obscure CNBC commentator and Chicago Mercantile floor trader had a small following for his morning rants, primarily among traders and investors who shared his libertarian small government bent – who also happened to watch Squawk Box. Small universe.
But on Thursday the 19th, with the Obama administration promoting a plan to force mortgage payers to bail out deadbeat mortgage clients, Santelli just went off from his post at the Merc. His 4;53 second soliloquy – carried live on Squawk Box – was met with raucous cheering from other traders on the floor. Santelli’s sarcastic ire was aimed at a government that was too big, too powerful and too corrupt – and actively picking winners and losers.
His funniest line was about the government favoring those who “drink the water” over those who “carry the water.” But the money line was an off the cuff threat to “hold a Chicago Tea Party on Lake Michigan.”
He just tossed that in as a throw away line. Well, it didn’t get thrown away.
That audio was then picked up by those connected to the Rush Limbaugh Show, a rarity given that Rush hardly ever used CNBC material at the time. (That too changed, which is important). It is believed that Rush then sent his buddy Matt Drudge the audio.
And this is where the astonishing instincts of both Rush and Drudge kicked in. Drudge’s headline, all red and all caps, trumpeted “TRADERS REVOLT: CNBC HOST CALLS FOR NEW ‘TEA PARTY’; CHICAGO FLOOR MOCKS OBAMA PLAN” – complete with his iconic siren and a large photo of Santelli. Meanwhile, Rush opened his show with the theme that “the pulse of the revolution has started” – and spent much of the entire three hours on Santelli bit and what it foretold.
This was tens of millions of dollars worth of instant exposure. Maybe more.
Neither had ever mentioned Santelli before. So how did they know? I guess there’s a reason Rush is Rush and Drudge is Drudge. They perceived the tinder box America was becoming, and they recognized the match and gasoline when they saw it.
Their massive combined exposure dwarfed CNBC’s entire audience, and thus started a lot of dominos toppling. First, all the other NBC networks picked it up and covered it. They did this to such an extent that Robert Gibbs, Obama’s Press Secretary at the time – and like Santelli and Obama a Chicagoan – virtually threatened the trader with a veiled reference to knowing where his house is from the White House podium.
This just furthered the story – and the tea party meme – to the entire media and thus, to the country. Suddenly the movement that started against the spending of George W. Bush – and was bubbling up faster under the threat of what Obama and the Democrat Congress wanted to inflict on the country – had a name and growth steroids. The match and gasoline had landed squarely on the kindling. BOOM!
This energized the town hall revolts and within weeks hundreds of groups had organically formed under some iteration of the name tea party. The conservative movement would never be quite the same again.
I appreciate that there are tea party thinkers who don’t know, or don’t remember the name Santelli. I know tea party groups vary in emphasis, and many don’t prioritize Santelli’s main concerns. Still, there’s no denying that this is the media/political continuum that shifted all of it into warp speed.
Concurrently CNBC – which was relatively balanced or even apolitical at the time – was airing commentary from Jack Welsh, Warren Buffet, Larry Kudlow and others critical of the government’s leftward lurch. Rush continued to feature these segments, as Squawk Box material replaced Morning Joe as a go to audio source. He especially liked to make fun of Buffet and Jim Cramer, who would constantly contradict themselves in order to remain big Obama fan boys. Cramer would call Pelosi a marxist one moment, and kneel before Obama the next. Go figure.
Meanwhile, CNBC videos started appearing on YouTube. All of this was very illustrative of the destruction our government was causing. And produced by CNBC.
Prior to this, NBC tolerated CNBC’s semi-conservative bent because, well, only a handful of people watched it anyway. However, the suits at NBC were not going to tolerate CNBC being a bigger voice critical of liberal economic policies. Kudlow was removed. Jack Welsh suddenly quit stopping by the set. Jerry Bowyer was vaporized, as were Bernie Marcus and others. Far left radicals Becky Quick, Carl Quintenilla and Andrew Ross Sorkin suddenly surrounded Joe Kernan. Buffet quit talking serious economics as he shamefully flirted with Quick and fawned over Obama, which is admittedly pretty easy multi-tasking.
Also, the shameless cronyism of GM’s Jeffrey Immelt was celebrated – on air. Ditto Solyndra. Elon Musk. Suddenly, corporate welfare was a good thing to these leftists. This planted the seeds of the Obama administration bribing/threatening health insurers, AARP and big Pharma into supporting Obama Care. This did not happen with Hillary Care in the 1990s. Things had changed.
In 2009 and 2010 it was now cool to destroy the free market forever in order to save your own bacon for a few years. Hell, a CEO got praised for it on national cable. Thus, the left would never be quite the same again either. CNBC isn’t.
Which brings us full circle to CNBC’s Republican debate. The network had no intention of ever helping start the most significant conservative movement in decades that led to two historic mid term wipe outs. And yet it had.
Prior to that, lightweights like Quintenilla and Quick would never have been chosen to moderate. John Harwood would have been balanced by others. Santelli might have even been one. The other night, he was relegated to only a quick cameo, which he used to tee up Ted Cruz and Rand Paul with red meat. Thank you Rick, we needed it at the time.
The questioning would not have been so infantile and well, so blatantly MSNBC. CNBC had no intention of hosting another seminal moment – one in which the entire relevant Republican field – would collectively decide that fighting back against the media was the expedient thing to do. And yet, by over reaching, they stepped in it again. They did conservatives another massive, if completely different, favor.
I submit, as do Sean Hannity, Ted Cruz, Limbaugh and others, that candidates have seen the light on handling the media. Donald Trump deserves a lot of the credit for this over the past months. As do Cruz and Ben Carson. But it was Cruz’s defense of the entire field, and of all conservatives, that was like a game changing pick six in football. The debate was instantly different. That was the match and the gasoline to another conservative explosion. I contend nothing will be the same in debates any time soon, or in any liberal media interviews for that matter – and this is critical.
And ironically, CNBC was the source for this sea change. Again.
Edmund Wright is contributor to Breitbart, American Thinker, Newsmax TV and Talk Radio Net – and author of several books including Amazon election best seller: WTF? How Karl Rove and the Establishment Lost…Again.