Tea Party Herds the Angry, Lands in Hot Water: Margaret Carlson

The Tea Party activists claimed a huge victory in Massachusetts when Scott Brown, a former Cosmopolitan centerfold driving a pickup, captured the hallowed seat of Ted Kennedy.

In November, they claimed the scalp of Dede Scozzafava, the mainstream Republican forced to drop out of a special congressional election in New York when the tea partiers found her insufficiently conservative.

Florida state senator Marco Rubio happily credits tea partiers for helping him pull ahead of the once-popular governor, Charlie Crist, for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Florida.

Three symbolically important Senate seats are now up for grabs, those formerly held by President Barack Obama in Illinois and Vice President Joe Biden in Delaware, and that of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. Ask yourself this: If the sitting vice president’s son, who served in Iraq and is Delaware attorney general, decides not to run for his father’s seat, how bleak are the prospects for any other Democrat?

Democrats are right to be worried about keeping those seats, but there’s a bright spot in the trouble the tea partiers are having raising their game to the next level.

The National Tea Party Convention at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee, next week is unraveling. And no wonder. Herding cats is never easy, and a convention, as opposed to demonstrations, is antithetical to the anti-establishment Tea Party philosophy.

Disparate Passions

Who could hope to corral the disparate passions of Birchers and birthers, gold bugs, strict constructionists, secessionists, militiamen, vaccine deniers, anti-papists and flat-earthers? They collectively obscure the more silent majority of those legitimately concerned that America has lost its way.

The immediate reason for trouble is money. Rank-and-file tea partiers are balking at what the host, Tea Party Nation, is charging for admission to the big shindig. A ticket will cost $549 -- plus $9.95 shipping and handling. With airfare and hotel, the average tea partier, whose motivating ethos is fiscal restraint, would have to shell out $1,000 or more to hear, among others, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin -- who according to the Associated Press and Politico will be paid $100,000.

How soon a populist adjusts to being elite. Politicians give paid speeches, sure, but usually not to a nascent voters’ group trying to get off the ground.

Smell of Scam

The “real” populists are pushing back. One constituent group, the National Precinct Alliance, dropped out, claiming Tea Party Nation was “profiteering.” The Federation for American Immigration Reform, listed as a “bronze” sponsor, bailed. And one of the largest sponsors, the American Liberty Alliance, asked to be removed from the list of sponsors. The influential editor of RedState.com, Eric Erickson, wrote that the “convention smells scammy.”

Sprouting up a year ago and spreading like kudzu, the tea partiers are the most visible and energetic political group around, pulling off several memorable rallies around the country. On the National Mall in Washington last summer, with the help of Glenn Beck, perhaps as many as 100,000 members (or more than 1 million, if you listen to the organizers) showed up to protest the corrupt elites running a central government that was ruining the lives of ordinary Americans.

Bringing the tea partiers indoors for a mainstream meeting in a hotel ballroom is more difficult than bringing tens of thousands to demonstrate outdoors, as the left has learned as well. If it doesn’t get disciplined enough to channel its energy, the Tea Party movement won’t matter in the end. We’re not a nation run by renegades.

Wary Republicans

The weakness of the movement, and a bright spot for Democrats, is not that organizers are skimming a profit but that the Republican Party they’ve aligned themselves with is wary of a wholehearted association. Joining with the tea partiers is like dancing with a porcupine. Yes, with the decline of the Christian right, the tea partiers could become the foot soldiers of the coming elections. Yet the uglier part of the group may alienate as many voters as it attracts.

At the rally on the Mall, the gathering had the air of a state fair without the prize bull. Amid some who were hostile and angry, there were many more who came by bus or carpool and are like the people you know -- only more actively anxious about the decline of America.

My sweet father, a member of the Knights of Columbus and a disillusioned Democrat, would be a prime target for membership, if he were alive. But he’d also have been a prime candidate to drop out when, at the Washington rally, he saw the sign, “The Zoo Has an African Lion and the White House has a Lyin’ African.”

That Kenya Thing

Some Republican stars such as Representative Michele Bachmann are at home with those who contend Obama is a Muslim born in Kenya and fully embrace the tea partiers. She’s a headliner at the convention.

Others, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, waltz decorously with the movement, hoping to capitalize on voter discontent while avoiding backlash.

For all the help tea partiers gave Senator-elect Brown in Massachusetts, he pretended they didn’t exist and is distancing himself even more as he assumes office. Two years from now, he may well not be pure enough to be their choice for reelection.

(Margaret Carlson, author of “Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House” and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

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