Unify the new American ‘tea party’? Good luck with that.

An attempt to solidify the tea party movement with a convention next month in Nashville is now looking like it could backfire. So far, pragmatism, not party politics, has boosted the tea party’s profile.

By , Staff writer

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    Hundreds of tea party protests, like this one in Las Cruces, New Mexico last April, galvanized the movement. But can it hang together enough to have real political impact?
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America has seen plenty of tea party protests around the country in the last year. The image of tea party activists protesting at a major tea party event, however, would be new.

It could happen. Some activists are panning a planned “Tea Party Convention” in Nashville next month, saying the for-profit group Tea Party Nation – which scored a major coup by convincing Sarah Palin to come for a $100,000 speaker’s fee – is trying to co-opt the movement for dubious purposes.

The blowup over the convention, which aims to bring together the movement’s discordant voices, points to a key paradox of a liberty-driven phenomenon that has gained surprising political capital in one short year: Unified, it may well fail; dispersed, it could prevail.

Top-down model rejected

“The idea that there’s one person, one event, that can somehow be the tea party spokesperson is inaccurate and counter to the movement of free-thinking individuals that want less government intervention,” says John O’Hara, author of “A New American Tea Party.” “This top-down model is what’s being rejected in politics, and that you’d adopt that for your movement is bizarre.”

The brouhaha over the Tea Party Convention notwithstanding, Mr. O’Hara adds that he doesn’t believe that is happening with the tea party movement.

But others are concerned. Though the victory of Republican Scott Brown this week in Massachusetts hinged at least in part on tea party support, it left in its wake a surprising crisis of confidence. In short, the movement is torn between its grassroots credentials and stepping up its game and organization to become a bigger part of the political debate.

“At the very moment the tea party has proved itself as an undeniable political force that must be taken seriously, it is at risk of tearing itself apart,” writes former Congressman Joe Scarborough in Newsweek.

The convention is Exhibit 1. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson, otherwise a tea party fan, likens the credibility of the convention organizers to “an email from Nigeria promising me a million bucks.”

Holding together a fractious coalition

“Billed as a pivot point to transition the tea party movement from a chaotic uprising to an organized and sustainable political force … the first-ever convention in Nashville … is instead shaping up as a reminder of the problems inherent in holding together a fractious coalition of local groups resistant to authority and pursuing often-conflicting agendas,” writes Kenneth Vogel in Politico.

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Mr. Scarborough, for one, says the tea party’s challenge is how to take on entrenched political parties without a solid structure of your own. “Riven with internal conflicts and lacking a coherent structure, the tea party's biggest challenge may be trying to deal with its own success," he writes.

Others worry that without some kind of a platform, the GOP – and even Democrats – could co-opt its message. “Will tea party conservatives be able to guide the Republican Party in the wake of [a moderate-to-liberal Republican] being elected to Kennedy’s old seat?” wonders Andrew Ian Dodge in the wake of Scott Brown's election. If not, he writes, the Massachusetts election may have “split the tea party movement so it is no longer a threat to both parties.”

But that view is shortsighted, others in the movement say. Despite lack of structure and bureaucracy, the tea party movement has proven to be remarkably agile, responsive, and (even by backing Brown) powerfully pragmatic.

“There’s always this balance between staying principled and gaining traction in the political process,” says Mr. O’Hara. “You need to get in the game to really affect change, and a lot of times that’s going to mean working with the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or a third party, just making sure that whoever does get elected stays true to the principles that this movement is trying to progress.”

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