The National Tea Party Convention took place in Nashville this weekend, and the only thing anyone seems able to agree upon is that it did actually occur. Considering the preliminary disputes over the ethics of holding a political convention for profit, whether it was really national, and whether the Tea Party even exists as a single entity, the “[National] ‘Tea Party’ <finger quotes>Convention</finger qutoes>” was a huge success. The Tea Partiers successfully established that they love Sarah Palin, who announced weeks ago that she would be paid $100,000 to speak at the event, but also wrote in USA Today that she “would not benefit financially for speaking at this event…any compensation for my appearance will go right back to the cause.” What “the cause” is remained unclear to everyone. Once again, the Tea Party boiled but failed to coalesce, and the convention that we at Combat! blog hoped would finally define the movement—as a national party, an activist agenda, or even a political platform—turned out to be another exercise in playacting. ABC News captured the mood best: “Delegate William Temple from Georgia, who was dressed in a kilt, said he wanted to work against ‘Republicans, Democrats and Independents who have been in Congress too many terms. We’re sick of everyone.'” Thus spake the petulant ignorance of a generation.
Like any dream, the National Tea Party Convention at least revealed a few deep anxieties. Former Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo kicked off the weekend with a virulent denunciation of President Obama, immigration and “the cult of multiculturalism.” He also called for civics and literacy tests as a qualification for voting, which A) is bad news for this guy and B) brought the Tea Party to open racism even earlier than expected. Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily—the insanely conservative website/pioneer in the field of making advertisements look like headlines—used his microphone time to advance the claim that the President was not born in the United States. Such issues would have remained on the fringes of debate, had they not been the only concrete ideas discussed. Still, former representative Dick Armey did not approve. “That kind of rhetoric is counterproductive,” he told Time.*
Dick Armey would prefer measured, sensible rhetoric—you know, like Sarah Palin calling for “another American revolution.” Besides encouraging her listeners to overthrow the federal government of the United States, Palin also spoke passionately in favor of strict constitutional government and limited spending, plus denying criminal trials to accused terrorists and expanding national defense. The irony of her position was apparently lost on her, as it was in this statement: “It’s time for more than just tough talk. We are just so tired of hearing the talk, talk, talk. We need a clear foreign policy that stands with the people and for democracy, one that reflects both our values and our interests.” Finally, someone has stood up to demand that we stop spouting empty rhetoric and construct our foreign policy around specific goals, like the people, democracy, values and interests.
It was an idea-free speech for an idea-free movement, but it went over well. The populist rage of the Tea Party remains bottomless, and amidst her vague platitudes and uroboros reasoning Palin spoke to a sense of real injustice, decrying federal bailouts that have allowed CEOs to keep their jobs while they companies they run shed thousands of workers. In this line of reasoning, if in any, lies the best hope of the Tea Party to actually exert a positive influence on American politics, by forcing conservative Republicans to choose free market orthodoxy or corporate welfare, but not both. The paranoid suspicion that they were playing in a rigged game—that rich men were exploiting them in ways they could only glimpse—extended to the organizers of the convention, Tea Party Nation, who infamously charged $549 a ticket. Spokesman Mark Skoda admitted he and his wife would make money off the event, but defended himself, saying, “Have we gone so far in the Obama-socialist view of the nation that ‘profit’ is a bad word—in particular, if we’re using it to advance the conservative cause?”
Mark Skoda is a man who knows his rhetoric. The alacrity with which he turns the language of his movement to a defense of his own profiteering captures, perhaps, the most troubling aspect of the Tea Party: that the whole thing might be fake, a stalking horse for the GOP or an astroturf field for lobbyists or an old-fashioned lifestyle sale. The National Tea Party Convention was supposed to allay that fear, but with no organizational structure, defined leadership, political platform or plan for the future, the Tea Party is beginning to look more and more like a chimera. Maybe its most lasting legacy will be a new house for Mark and Sherry Skoda and a hot tub for Sarah Palin. On the other hand, maybe it’s the flipside of Barack Obama’s unlikely victory in 2008: proof, on the conservative end of the spectrum, that the most valuable commodity in American politics is not organization or even ideas, but hope.
Erick Erickson, who announced that the national convention was probably a scam just weeks ago, ultimately found that hope too powerful to refuse. He went to Nashville after all, and claims to have experienced a change of heart somewhere over the course of the weekend. That’s a figure of speech, of course—Erick Erickson doesn’t have a heart. He does, however, express a cautious hope for the Tea Party. “It was a case almost of the proverbial dog who actually got the car,” he said, if not economically. “I’m glad to see the activists here that are really committed, but I think it’s clear from the agenda and the speakers that these guys were actually caught off guard by a lot of this.” In other words, the National Tea Party Convention didn’t realize it had a national tea party movement on its hands. The stupidity of that statement is, of course, boggling. It’s an honest, heartfelt kind of stupidity, though, and I hope that Erick Erickson is right. The Tea Party continues to founder. Let’s cross our fingers that it is thrashing around on the floor like a toddler taking its first steps, and not like a middle-aged man throwing a tantrum.