A Tale of Two Tea Parties
Is it the best of times or the worst of times for America’s Tea Party movement?
The answer may emerge in the next couple of weeks. A pair of Tea-Party-events-in-the-making suggest the movement, which has channeled much of the conservative opposition to President Barack Obama’s agenda, has reached a fork in the road.
It made headlines last summer as “Tea Party” rallies – evoking a famous protest in Boston against British rule in 1773 — were held across the country in opposition to bank bail-outs, Obama’s attempted healthcare overhaul, and other aspects of the White House agenda.
This weekend one offshoot of the movement is holding a conference in Dallas/Fort Worth called “Leadership Tea Party.” It is a low-key, nuts-and-bolts affair that is focused on the practical side of political training and winning elections. Sessions include: “Tea Parties: Legal Overview for Structures and Fundraising,” and “Victory in a Box.” The latter is about how to get out the vote in primary and general elections.
Richard Viguerie, a leading conservative figure and writer, will give the keynote address on Friday night. Among other things he is seen as a pioneer of get-0ut-the-vote tactics such as ”political direct mail.” The conference is being put on by a group called the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition.
This all suggests the movement — or part of it anyway — which last summer portrayed itself as grassroots and spontaneous, is following a path that has been well-trodden by other conservative groups in America linked to the Republican Party, such as the religious right. Effectively, it is organizing to push conservative candidates and issues with an eye to the 2010 congressional elections and the next White House race in 2012.
The following weekend will see an event which some liberal critics hope could be the movement’s Waterloo or at least an embarrassing debacle. The National Tea Party Convention in Nashville Feb. 4-6 has gotten far more press than the Dallas event and its headline speaker is none other than former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the current rock star of the U.S. conservative movement.
But it is a convention that has been plagued by in-fighting, criticism from liberals and conservatives alike, and high-profile pull-outs. It also seems aimed more at the fringe of the movement. For some of the coverage see here and here and here.
Some of the criticism of the Nashville event has focused on the fact that the organizing group, Tea Party Nation, is a for-profit instead of a non-profit. The admission price of over $500 for the steak and lobster dinner that will accompany Palin’s speech has struck some as more Wall Street than Main Street — or worse.
Erick Erickson, who runs the popular conservative RedState blog, had this to say a couple of weeks back about the Nashville event: “Let me be blunt: charging people $500.00 plus the costs of travel and lodging to go to a ‘National Tea Party Convention’ run by a for profit group no one has ever heard of sounds as credible as an email from Nigeria promising me a million bucks if I fork over my bank account number.”
It has been pretty much downhill from there for the convention, though Palin has said she still plans to address it and will give her speaking fee — widely reported to be around $100,000 — back to conservative political causes.
But the event’s for-profit status has given conservative Republican Representatives Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee excuses to cancel their scheduled appearances. Bachmann’s office said she had cancelled on the recommendation of the Congressional Committee on Standards.
The conference was initially reported to be open to just conservative, like-minded media such as Fox News, but organizers have since opened it up to other media outlets and will even have a press conference on Friday, Feb. 5.
Eyebrows have also been raised by some of the speakers and the topics to be covered. Conservative activist Ana Puig is to give a talk on “Correlations between the current Administration and Marxist Dictators of Latin America.” Another speaker is Joseph Farah, whose on-line paper World Net Daily is obsessed with the notion that Obama was not born in the United States and so his presidency is unconstitutional. People who hold this view are referred to as “birthers” and many Republicans and leading conservatives have sought to distance themselves from this group.
If nothing else, the two events, organized by different offshoots of the Tea Party movement, show just how diverse it has become — and suggest it could become a key Republican ally or something the party is unable to control.
(PHOTO: People hold signs during a “tea party” protest in Flagstaff, Arizona, on Aug. 31, 2009. Organizers said the event was an effort to work against members of Congress who voted for higher spending and taxes. REUTERS/Joshua Lott)