As protests at congressional town-hall meetings have heated up the health-care debate and turned public opinion against the Democrats’ agenda, liberals have stepped up their efforts to delegitimize the protestors. “AstroTurf” is a word that pops up a lot on liberal talk-radio shows, blogs, and MSNBC. It is a slur, an accusation against everyone who has spoken out at one of these meetings: Your dissent is illegitimate. You are either a mindless puppet or a willing corporate tool.
The bogeyman at the center of this melodrama is a group called FreedomWorks, chaired by former House majority leader Dick Armey. FreedomWorks, where I used to work (it was called Citizens for a Sound Economy then), is a grassroots advocacy group that has organized a number of protests against the Democrats’ health-care plan. Last week, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow accused FreedomWorks of being a front group for the corporate clients of DLA Piper, a law firm that employed Armey — until last weekend. What happened?
#ad#“All of a sudden, not just Rachel Maddow, but commentators all over the place were making outrageous connections between Piper, clients of Piper, and my work at FreedomWorks, even though no connections existed,” Armey says. He didn’t want to leave his clients exposed to these attacks, and he didn’t want to quit FreedomWorks, so he told Piper, “Let’s just make it easy on ourselves. I have to be me. I left the majority leader’s job for that reason.” (Armey has said he decided to leave Congress after the No Child Left Behind vote, when he realized that Bush’s “compassionate conservative” agenda would force him to compromise his principles too often.)
On her August 11 broadcast, Maddow singled out pharmaceutical companies and Piper clients Bristol-Myers Squibb and the Medicines Company, and implied that the money they paid for Piper’s lobbying services was buying them something extra: FreedomWorks and its opposition to the president’s health-care agenda. “When you pay Dick Armey’s lobbying firm, DLA Piper,” Maddow sneered, “you get what Dick Armey’s grassroots organization FreedomWorks does.”
That accusation is ridiculous on its face. The organization’s defining achievement — the grassroots victory it includes in all of its promotional materials — is its contribution to defeating Hillarycare in the early ’90s, when it followed the first lady to town-hall meetings in a broken-down ambulance. Opposition to socialized medicine isn’t a new passion for FreedomWorks; it is a cornerstone of the group’s limited-government agenda.
That aside, why would pharmaceutical companies fund these protests via Piper, anyhow? The pharmaceutical industry supports the president’s health-care agenda. Having cut a deal with the White House, it is spending $150 million on ads to convince people that Obama and the Democrats have the right ideas when it comes to reform. Far from purchasing the services of FreedomWorks, as Maddow claimed, Piper’s pharmaceutical clients reportedly complained about the possibility that they might be associated with the group’s activities.
“The media initiated this sensational story,” Armey says, “which is that Dick Armey and FreedomWorks are secretly working for all the pharmaceutical companies that are clients of DLA Piper. Then they go from that to the story that the pharmaceutical companies are really working for the president and are upset at Dick Armey and FreedomWorks for trying to derail his plan. Which is it?”
Last Friday, Maddow reported Armey’s resignation but acted puzzled about the cause. “Our reporting is not the first time that confusion has been reported about whether or not FreedomWorks is actually a . . . front for corporate lobbying and P.R.,” she said. “Why this time has it resulted in this dramatic resignation we honestly do not yet know.”
Let me make it nice and clear for you, Rachel. The beltway special-interest groups — PhRMA, the American Medical Association, the Federation of American Hospitals, not to mention the unions and the AARP and even some insurance companies who like the idea of mandated coverage — are not on the side of freedom this time. That’s why Armey had to go.
– Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.