Queen of the Tea Party

Sarah Palin's rousing speech looked more like a State of the Union address—and the crowd loved every word. But, John Avlon reports, it wasn’t enough to steer the group's uncertain future.

Sarah Palin's rousing speech looked more like a State of the Union address—and the crowd loved every word. But, John Avlon reports, it wasn’t enough to steer the group's uncertain future. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

The National Tea Party Convention ended with a Palin for President rally.

This was always slated to be the weekend’s main event, with a $100,000 prize purse. But the organizers still hadn’t seen a copy of the speech as the crowd streamed into the banquet ballroom. What they got was less a Tea Party manifesto than Sarah Palin’s State of the Union speech—an address to a domestic spending protest group which spent its first 15 minutes focused on foreign policy.

It didn’t matter. With plenty of anti-Obama red meat and Palin’s patented folksy-sarcasm, this crowd was rapturous about just being in her presence. She remains the Queen of the Conservative Populists.

The Tea Partiers, munching on a decidedly non‑populist steak and shrimp dinner, were geared up. Seated at my table were two Revolutionary War re‑enactors in full regalia as well as an aspiring Republican congressional candidate from Oklahoma and an independent-conservative Senate candidate from Arkansas. When the time came time for toasts with our water glasses "Death to tyrants" was chosen.

The tone was continued in a pre‑Palin prayer by a woman who told the audience to stand, hold hands, and ruminate on this bit of received wisdom: "We are a Judeo-Christian nation, no matter what the president says." It was the audience’s first real applause line of the evening.

There would be many more from Palin herself: “We need a commander in chief not a professor of law”; "Foreign policy can't be managed through the politics of personality"; “How's that hope-y, change-y stuff workin' out for you?"; and referring to the Democrats’ consecutives losses in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, “When you're 0-3 you'd better stop lecturing and start listening." Each received a standing ovation.

Fiscal conservatism is the common ground of the Tea Party movement and Palin spent the middle of her speech singing from a well-written hymnal—echoing Wall Street Journal editorials, quoting Barry Goldwater and Congressman Paul Ryan, while adding a few new populist digs at Wall Street in the process. But while calling for cuts she offered no specifics—and pointedly avoided any mention of entitlement reform—a dead giveaway that she’s planning to run for president.

The Tea Partiers who’d shelled out $500 a piece to hear her speak are ready for the Palin Express in 2012. But for what amounted to a prime-time speech to the nation, Palin sounded rushed in her delivery, spending much of the start staring down at her script, presumably to avoid Obama-esque digs about teleprompter dependence. There was one classic Freudian slip, when Palin told the crowd that many people are “wondering if Alaska is still a beacon of hope for their cause.” She presumably meant to say “America.”

But this crowd clearly believes that Alaska is still a beacon of hope for their cause. Palin may be the most polarizing figure in American politics, but she is beloved by her supporters beyond anything seen since Ronald Reagan. Assuming she runs, whatever mistakes she makes between now and the nomination will be dismissed by her supporters as the work of the liberal media playing “gotcha” politics. And in the dynamics of the Iowa caucus that Teflon devotion could bring her victory.

For the Tea Party movement, it was an oddly establishment end to a conference devoted to rebellion—the crowd’s full-throated endorsement of the GOP’s former VP nominee. It is one of many still unresolved tensions in the Tea Party movement, which even after this much-hyped weekend convention remains divided between purposeful fiscal conservative Paul Reveres and people suffering from a serious case of Obama Derangement Syndrome. Another of Palin’s one-liners seems to fit the current condition: “If you can’t ride two horses then you shouldn’t be in the circus.” How long the circus can sustain riding these two divergent horses will determine whether the Tea Party succeeds or self-destructs.

John Avlon’s new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the web and in paperback. Advance orders can be placed here. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.