Santelli: Five Years after His Rant Launched Tea Party

Obama and left lashed out at Santelli as ‘mad clown,’ ‘clueless’ and ‘out-of-touch,’ but he takes pride in role as grassroots catalyst.

Five years ago, CNBC’s Rick Santelli reacted to the possibility of a mortgage bailout with frustration on live television. Quickly, his speech on the trading floor became known as the “rant heard round the world.”

Santelli, an on-air editor who reports live from the Chicago Board of Trade, is frequently interviewed during “Squawk Box” and “Squawk on the Street.” It was during one of those morning discussions on Feb. 19, 2009, that Santelli let loose on a potential bailout of homeowners arguing that “the government is promoting bad behavior” and proposing that capitalists gather in Chicago for a “Tea Party.”

"I tell you what, I have an idea," Santelli shouted. "The new administration is big on computers and technology – how about this, president and new administration? Why don't you put up a website to have people vote on the Internet as a referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers' mortgages, or would we like to at least buy cars and buy houses in foreclosure and give them to people that might have a chance to actually prosper down the road and reward people that could carry the water instead of drink the water."

Traders on the floor began cheering at Santelli’s “novel idea.” Santelli went on to ask the the Chicago Mercantile Exchange traders “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage, that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand.” Booing erupted.

Santelli didn’t stop there. He declared, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.” The traders whistled, cheered and applauded. But it wasn’t only the trading floor, Santelli riled up. It was average Americans of all kinds, who were outraged by Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility and bailout culture.

Soon Tea Parties were popping up in cities across the country. Suddenly there was a political movement centered around fiscal responsibility and against politicians who choose the opposite, at least in part thanks to Santelli.

When a CNBC co-host suggested he might run for office, Santelli opposed the idea vehemently saying, “The last place I'm ever going to live or work is DC.”

The Backlash

While Santelli’s outburst may have made him popular in living rooms across America, it didn’t make him friends in the White House, or the liberal media and blogosphere. Even five years later, the left is still trashing Santelli and the Tea Party as a whole like Salon.com did on Feb. 13, 2014, with a story about the “fringe” movement with a “conspiracist mindset.”

Back in 2009, the administration and lefties also reacted with scorn, mockery and insults. The lefty site Gawker called it “The least sympathetic populist rage ever,” while liberal comedian Jon Stewart  used his trademark snark to whip Santelli after he cancelled a scheduled interview on “The Daily Show” and progressive pundit Paul Begala called Santelli a clown, according to Think Progress. Surprisingly, in almost five years broadcast networks ABC and CBS have had little to say about Santelli. A Nexis search yielded only seven stories combined on those networks. CNBC’s sister network NBC talked about him on its news and talk shows 29 times according to Nexis.

John Dickerson of Slate, who moved to CBS News just a couple months later, wrote a few days after Santelli’s Feb. 19, rant that it was “impassioned, scattershot, and ultimately clownish.” He went on to detail the White House response, too, saying, “Gibbs had to push back against the blanket coverage Santelli was getting.”

Obama’s then-press secretary Robert Gibbs went after Santelli during a press briefing, saying (among other things): "I also think it's tremendously important that for people who rant on cable television to be responsible and understand what it is they're talking about. I feel assured that Mr. Santelli doesn't know what he's talking about."

Gibbs accused Santelli of having not read the proposal he was criticizing and took a swipe at Santelli’s intelligence by explaining how to print a copy of the proposal and the CNBC editor’s energy saying he’d buy him a “decaf” coffee if he wanted to come to the White House to discuss it.

More than six months later, Gibbs hadn’t gotten over it. On Sept. 4, 2009, CNBC aired comments Gibbs made saying, “I thought the argument that he was making was both disingenuous and not based on the facts. It was clear that Rick was very passionate about the issue. And look, we have differing opinions from both sides of the political aisle. It was clear to me that the argument that he was making wasn't based on him having actually read our plan."

Santelli responded saying, “But there's two points that I want to clarify," Santelli continued. "He once again continues, Mr. Gibbs, to say that I was disingenuous and didn't read the home modification plan. Just for the record, not that it really matters – I did. But what's even more important is the part of the conversation with John Harwood and Mr. Gibbs that was missing and that is something magical and uniquely American happened on the 19th and 20th of February."

Lefty Filmmaker Michael Moore attacked Santelli as “classist and bigotist,” while left-wing Huffington Post contributors called him “clueless” and a “loser.”

Even skin magazine Playboy furiously claimed it was all a conspiracy. Santelli didn’t spontaneously tap into America’s frustration, rather, “What we discovered is that Santelli's "rant" was not at all spontaneous as his alleged fans claim, but rather it was a carefully-planned trigger for the anti-Obama campaign. In PR terms, his February 19th call for a "Chicago Tea Party" was the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign, one in which Santelli served as a frontman, using the CNBC airwaves for publicity, for the some of the craziest and sleaziest rightwing oligarch clans this country has ever produced,” Playboy claimed in the spring of 2009.

Santelli: Proud of Rant That ‘Woke People Up’

In spite of the liberal outrage and name-calling, Santelli has expressed pride in the results of his CNBC speech.

Responding to White House criticism from Gibbs in late 2009, Santelli said “I think we should all be proud that we are living in a country where we can question those we put in power because at the end of the day they work for every citizen," Santelli said. "And I think that is a great aspect that came out and I think that it needed to be said."

Santelli was still proud of his rant more than a year later. In November 2010, he said, “I see it as an alarm clock – I think my rant woke people up ... And I think many people in this country had similar anxieties regarding the direction of bailouts and the direction of trying to fix something that was broken for many years that caught up with us.”

As for the Tea Party, Santelli said he thinks it is a “philosophy” rather than an actual political party. “It's a philosophy that, ‘We, the People’ – it's about us, that if the Americans want to do something, they have the power to try to put leaders in place to carry out whatever their notions are. It's the land of opportunity, not the land of entitlement and I think all of that is at the foundation of what caused the Tea Party movement to gain such traction,” he said.

He went on to praise the decentralized nature of the Tea Party calling it “a big strength.”

Santelli embraced his part in the movement saying, “if they write on my tombstone that I was the catalyst in the forming of the Tea Party movement, they could bury me with a smile.”

In February 2012, nearly 3 years to the day after Santelli’s famous rant, he was asked if the Tea Party was over. He said it wasn’t and also delineated differences between the Tea Party and the radical, left-wing, populist protests: Occupy Wall Street.

“While the vandals are on the street corners, the Tea Party conservatives they’re working state houses, the governorships, the mayorships, the Senate, the House. See, they understand, they’ve read the Constitution. If you want to make a difference, don't go break windows, okay?” Santelli said on CNBC. “Break some phony arguments that things like austerity are going to put you in the hole. What put you in the hole is borrowing 38 cents of every dollar you spent. That’s what put you in the hole, pure and simple. Everything else is political spin.” 

Editor's note: The MRC's Business and Media Institute was unable to interview Mr. Santelli ahead of publication due to deadline constraints.

— Julia A. Seymour is Assistant Managing Editor for the Business and Media Institute at the Media Research Center. Follow Julia A. Seymour on Twitter.