Does Sarah Palin Lead the Tea Party Movement?

It's instructive to look at Kentucky and the Rand Paul and Trey Grayson race. Sarah Palin is causing heartburn in that state in two ways. From The Hill:

Palin waded into the race despite it being widely known among political insiders that McConnell backs Rand’s opponent, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson.

GOP strategists in Washington believe Grayson has a much better chance of winning the general election but Palin has channeled conservatives' frustration over “go-along-to-get-along” Republicans in Washington.

Palin’s not-so-subtle challenge to McConnell’s political authority shows the overall difficulty GOP leaders have in taming the resurgent conservative base, which has made Palin and the Tea Party newly powerful political forces.

In the case of Kentucky, the tea partiers I know favor McConnell's choice. So here, the tea party movement and the Republican establishment are united.

The tea party people are independent. They don't want outsiders just because they are outsiders.

One need only to look at the Scott Brown election in Massachusetts to recognize that the driving values there were fiscal restraint, anti-establishment discontent, and "win-ability." There was a "tea party" candidate, Joe Kennedy, who garnered a few votes, but the tea partiers don't seem so ideological as to be big-picture stupid. It's nearly impossible to change Washington if the "pure" candidate can't get elected.

A bigger concern than Sarah Palin hijacking the tea party movement should be whether she will fracture it and diminish the impact of their grassroots activism.

Sarah Palin garners fanatical support from many of her followers. She has Obama-esque star power. The camera loves her. The media loves to hate her. She always makes headlines.

Her followers do not take too kindly to any criticism of Sarah Palin, thank you very much. In my own case, I've followed her career with interest -- writing mostly in defense of her. The vicious coverage she's received makes it nearly impossible to judge her on her merits. The media caricatured her from the beginning as an empty-headed Alaskan redneck. She deserved fair and honest treatment, but the left rightly feared (and loathed) her star power. Thus, they attacked her at every turn.

These attacks made Sarah Palin the de facto symbol of media bias, and she became adored and revered on the right by those who have seen their own beliefs -- clinging to God and guns -- maligned. But not every tea partier engages in idol worship. In fact, that's kinda the point. Most don't -- even for Sarah Palin.

Says one tea party organizer in a New England state:

As I posted on our Facebook page after this issue was brought up, Palin has never organized a rally, stood on a street corner with a sign or spent hours on an organizing conference call. No one tells us what to be upset about, when to rally nor why. We The People are in charge of this movement.

So if the tea party movement divides along Sarah-love lines, that could be problematic for the strength and future of the movement. While this is something to watch for, I'm not convinced that it will happen.

The tea party movement is a diverse group with the animating idea that government should bug out. They will make trouble for the Republican establishment. They will focus like lasers on "Blue Dog" Democrats who sold out their voters. They will not be told by anyone, including Sarah Palin, who and what they should support.

Conversely, because activists are independent, they may not resent Sarah Palin's choices, either. She's an American and free to do whatever she wants. That may mean that they are sometimes fighting on the same team and other times not.

It's a new day in American politics. No one is safe. And really, no politician should feel safe, including Sarah Palin. Glenn Reynolds writes in the Washington Examiner:

It’s not America’s churches and seminaries that are in trouble: It’s America’s politicians and parties. They’ve grown corrupt, venal, and out-of-touch with the values, and the people, that they’re supposed to represent. So the people, once again, are reasserting themselves.

Politicians would do well to tread lightly. Even better, they'd do well to not tread on the tea partiers at all.

The tea party movement has no national leader. It rarely has one local leader, as Judson Phillips has discovered, much to his chagrin. Self-appointed grand pooh-bahs need not apply.

No, Sarah Palin does not lead the tea party movement. She is but one voice, a loud and vocal one, decrying the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the country. This message resonates with the American people and the tea party movement. As long as Sarah Palin isn't perceived as part of the D.C. culture, her message will be heard.

Meanwhile, the people lead the tea party movement.