The news media largely ignored last year’s tea party rallies, scorning the participants as angry cranks. But tea partiers opened eyes by helping Republicans win elections in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and proof of their new political status appeared in Nashville over the weekend.
More than 100 reporters from as far away as Japan converged on the Gaylord Opryland Hotel to witness what was billed as the tea party’s first national convention and a critical moment for the young movement.
Live on Fox News, Sarah Palin celebrated the tea party in her headliner speech to hundreds of cheering fans Saturday night. "From here the future looks really good because, if there's hope in Massachusetts, there's hope everywhere,” Palin said, calling the tea party “the future of politics in America.”
"America is ready for a revolution," she said.
Tea party leaders counted the three-day convention as a great success and delighted in mocking critics who predicted it would flop in a flurry of accusations about finances. Organizers were so pleased they immediately planned another event for July (location to be announced).
“Truly, I think people are seeing there’s a sea change,” said Mark Skoda, the Memphis tea partier who acted as the convention’s media liaison. “When Scott Brown got elected [in Massachusetts last month] and, with one senator, we suddenly changed the entire agenda of Obama, they understood that there’s power in this movement.”
Questions marred the event in the weeks leading up to it. Media reports focused on whether Tea Party Nation’s Judson Phillips, the main organizer, was trying to make a profit from $549 ticket prices and $50,000 corporate sponsorships. Dissident tea partiers painted Phillips as a huckster out to rip off the masses of earnest patriots in the movement. Palin herself was knocked for taking a fee of up to $120,000. As the criticism mounted, Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota — both tea party stars — backed out of their speaking engagements.
Defending herself on Fox News, Palin promised to give her speaking fee to conservative causes. Phillips dismissed all the hubbub out of hand, contending his critics were suffering from sour grapes over his success. He said the convention was barely breaking even anyway. "I think we're going to have just enough to take a few of the volunteers out for a lunch on the dollar menu,” he joked.
Once the convention started Thursday, organizers tried to put the controversy behind them and to persuade reporters that this was a more sophisticated gathering than the noisy rallies and town-hall mauls that made headlines last summer. They said tea partiers were anxious to convert their grassroots uprising into political gain by mastering the mechanics of winning elections. There were sessions on voter registration, getting out the vote and other nuts and bolts of campaigning.
"We are all very mature people — without the pointy hats and the signs," Skoda told The Washington Post. "You will see people of quality and maturity to help bring this movement to a pinnacle whereby we actually change politics."
But with their bizarre opinions and conspiracy theories, the convention’s speakers did little to dispel the tea party’s far-right reputation.
In the opening night address, former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo said illiterate voters elected President Obama, whom he attacked as a “socialist ideologue.” Tancredo advocated a return to literacy tests for voters, raising the specter of the racist Jim Crow-era South.
The conservative hero Judge Roy Moore, famous for refusing to remove a Ten Commandments monument from his Alabama courthouse, castigated Obama for the usual litany of liberal offenses and added this one for good measure: Obama issued a proclamation for "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month." To Moore, that means the president "has elevated immorality to a new level."
"Go forth armed in the holy cause of liberty," he told the cheering tea partiers.
Steven Millroy, of JunkScience.com, warned tea partiers against the New World Order and said the president wants to force them to live in cities and take away their cars.
Joseph Farah, editor-in-chief of World Net Daily, spent much of his speech questioning whether Obama was born in this country and whether his election was legitimate. He vowed to make sure that "signs saying 'Where's the Birth Certificate'" appear at every Obama campaign stop in 2012.
In his speech, conservative publisher Andrew Breitbart went on a rant against the mainstream media: "In order to create the perception that the minority is the majority and the majority is not just the minority, but a bad, racist, homophobic, all those buzzwords that they learned in the freshman orientation class at Wesleyan, are used as weapons to try to destroy you and intimidate you to not speak up and to speak your mind.
"And your days of doing this are over."
Tea partiers said repeatedly during the convention that they don’t want to form a third party. Instead, they said they will work to win more influence within the Republican Party, “taking back the conservative movement,” as Skoda put it. To Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester, that’s a rare bit of good news in a state where Republicans seem to gain strength from every election.
“That will push the Republican Party further to the right, which bodes well for us," he said.
Already, according to Forrester, "The Republican Party in Tennessee, the way it's presently constructed, wouldn't have a warm seat for Howard Baker."