Why the Tea Party Convention is tea-tering on the edge

With two major speakers throwing in the towel, the first-ever Tea Party convention is giving Americans a glimpse at internecine fighting over the direction of the libertarian movement. But for now, the show goes on in Nashville.

Douglas Healey/AP
Tea party activists protest President Obama's appearance last October at a political fundraiser in Stamford, Conn.

With conservative firebrand Sarah Palin headlining, it’s been billed as an event to fuse and celebrate the tenets of the disparate “tea party” movement that has rocked American politics over the last year, forcing President Obama to take a more frugal and populist stance.

But so far, the first-ever Tea Party Nation Convention, slated for next weekend at Nashville’s Opryland, has been anything but a show of unity.

The decision by Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R) of Minn. and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R) of Tenn. to pull out of the convention, coming after similar withdrawals from groups like the American Liberty Alliance, has given Americans a glimpse into the vigorous internecine battles tearing at what critics mock as America’s latest mobocracy.

But so far, the tea party show goes on, and reports that Ms. Palin will speak to a half-empty room are most likely overblown. The uproar over the convention, some tea party activists say, is, in fact, exactly the kind of healthy debate necessary to shape a stronger and more influential movement.

'No central authority'

“The controversy only proves there’s no central authority,” says John O’Hara, author of “A New American Tea Party” and one of the early tea party organizers. “And wherever and whenever people are getting together to talk about getting the nation on track, it is a positive thing.”

Still, it turns out the exit of two key speakers is only the tip of the iceberg for the embattled convention, an event that some tea party activists fear could tarnish the movement.

The big beefs:

Sticker shock

The price tag: $549 for the convention and another $349 for the speech by Palin is money that many believe could be better spent supporting tea party-backed candidates in next year’s election.

Some have gone further, saying the upscale lobster dinner contradicts the tea party movement’s thrifty image, and feeds into theories that the convention is really a GOP “ruse” that will earn the organizer millions. Judson Phillips, the Nashville lawyer behind the convention, has dismissed those notions as sour grapes by former organizers. Organizers say they'll barely break even.

Cult of personality: Yes, Sarah Palin is a major conservative figure, but many tea party groups don’t want to get sucked into the kind of “cult of personality” that lifted Obama into the White House in 2008.

Local v. national: From the beginning, the tea party movement has been torn by its local versus national aspirations. Many who oppose the convention say it’s the people who should be speaking to the politicians, not the other way around.

Ethical questions behind withdrawals?

Bachmann and Blackburn cited questions raised by the House Ethics Committee about speaking in front of a for-profit entity as reasons for pulling out, although some wonder whether it also could have been a welcome excuse for the lawmakers as the controversy around the convention built in the last two weeks.

For many, the flap is a healthy development, representative of the kind of amateur hour aspect of the tea party movement that tends to undermine criticisms that it’s really a well-oiled Astoturf operation by shadowy conservative groups.

"It goes to the key point [that] grass-roots movements tend sometimes to be unwieldy," convention spokesman Mark Skoda tells NPR. "These are not professionals. We are not professional corporate organizers."

Indeed, besides Palin, other supporters and groups vow to stick with the Tea Party Convention.

“We’re proud to stand with other Americans who respect the U.S. Constitution, the rule of law, and the need to limit the size and scope of the federal government,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a well-respected organization that promotes government integrity and transparency.


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