Does Sarah Palin Lead the Tea Party Movement?

People who talk about a tea party leader have no experience with tea parties. If they did, they'd realize the notion of a tea party leader or someone "hijacking the movement" would be absurd.

Tea party participants aren't as recalcitrant and generally grumpy as Ron Paul followers, but they're close. And while less conspiratorial than the Paul followers, they're certainly more ticked off.

Jim Geraghty summed it up on Twitter this week: "Trying to direct & control the tea party movement is like trying to unionize the hitmen in Grosse Pointe Blank."

So a piece by Kleinhelder of the Nashvillepost.com ominously titled "Beginning Of The End: Sarah Palin Hijacks the Tea Party Movement" is sort of silly:

The tea party movement is dead. The one I was familiar with anyway. Judson Phillips held it down and Sarah Palin drove a stake right through its heart live last night on C-SPAN in front of an unsuspecting audience.

Sarah Palin didn’t give a tea party speech last night. She gave a partisan Republican address. It was a purely political speech designed to position her for a presidential run in 2012 or 2016. Period. She wasn’t there to celebrate the organic nature of a movement she had nothing to do with creating. She was there to co-opt the name and claim the brand as hers. And she did.

The movement, that came to be officially recognized almost a year ago but whose roots go back further than that, has been snuffed out and replaced in the public mind. The movement that began as a people’s movement of angry independent, libertarians and conservatives will now be thought as the movement of people like Palin, Dick Armey, Judson Phillips, Mark Skoda, etc. Essentially, a wholly owned subsidiary of the “Official Conservative Movement” and the Republican Party.

Well, that's melodramatic. It's also nonsense.

Sarah Palin may want to harness tea party support, but she's already made a couple errors to achieve that end.

The first mistake was headlining Judson Phillips' Tea Party Nation gathering itself. The rest of the tea party movements in Tennessee wondered how Governor Palin could align herself with someone who so did not represent the values of the tea party movement.

An exclusive gathering of people who could afford $549 per ticket? That's more like a political fundraiser for a political party. Tea party organizers and participants across the country bristled at that. Those I talked to expressed disappointment. Why not go to a huge rally in some city where thousands, not a few hundred, could hear, they wondered.

Another potential mistake, or series of mistakes, if you want to call them that, will be endorsing candidates who are perceived as establishment or "wrong" over the candidates tea party activists like.

When Sarah Palin endorsed Rand Paul, for example, the hew and cry from local tea party activists immediately reached my ears on Twitter. When Palin endorsed John McCain, tea partiers balked. And now that Palin has endorsed my own state's Rick Perry over Debra Medina, I am receiving angry Facebook messages lamenting her choice (and also my choice to go to the Palin-Perry rally to report on it).

Every political endorsement holds risk for Sarah Palin. She probably knows this. She also knows that she needs to build credibility within the Republican establishment by endorsing and helping to fund races. Some of these decisions will pit her against the tea party movement, or many within the 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.