Five Lessons from the Tea-Party Convention

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Ed Reinke / AP

Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin addresses attendees at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Feb. 6

Things can get awkward when protesters have to put down their placards and tackle the business of building an organization — networking online and recruiting reliable volunteers, precinct captains and even candidates. The transition is even more uncomfortable when undertaken in the glare of the national media spotlight, as the national tea-party movement attempted to do at its first convention, held in Tennessee over the weekend.

As with any protest movement, consensus proved elusive in two days of debate, but they seemed to agree on five key points:

1. Don't Tread on Me
The tea-party folks are innately suspicious of any institutions. "Keep the change ... I'll keep my freedom, my guns and my money!" read a T-shirt for sale in the lobby. The very term national convention might imply the existence of a leadership, but the activists proudly insist that there is none. "I'm a facilitator; we don't have leaders," one lady told TIME when asked if she heads her local tea-party chapter. "We're all equal in this movement."

In a panel discussion on "Where the Tea Party Goes from Here," Memphis tea-party organizer and convention spokesman Mark Skoda urged delegates to raise the tone of their protests and to avoid unnecessary name-calling of elected officials, including Democrats. "Do not discount the fact that they are still Americans," Skoda said. "Have to have some empathy for that without degrading their noble desire to serve."

"But, wait," a woman in the audience piped up, sounding flabbergasted. "I agree with you, Mark, but some of these guys are a lost cause." Skoda quickly agreed that, indeed, many members of Congress had to go. "Do not ever believe that you are below anybody in elected office," he added.

2. The Party in Tea Party Refers Only to Boston
"Form another party? Why would we want to do that? That's exactly what the Daily Kos wants us to do and we'd just be playing into liberal hands," said Andrew Breitbart, a conservative blogger referring to a noted liberal blog. While Breitbart's was a common view, there were plenty of contrarians. "I'm kind of split" on the issue, said Angela Montgomery, 42, a retired dietician from Johnson City, Tenn. "I see the problems but I also think that tea partiers would better represent me than Republicans right now."

When Skoda, addressing reporters, reiterated the argument against forming a new party, he hastily added, "Of course, I only speak for myself." Sarah Palin, perhaps unsurprisingly, urged the movement to work within the system. "The Republican Party would be very smart to try and absorb as much of the tea-party movement as possible," she told the crowd. "Because the tea-party movement is the future of politics."

3. We Don't Need a Leader
"The tea-party movement has no leader, and ... neither did the American Revolution," thundered talk-radio host Phil Valentine, who spoke before Palin at the gala dinner. Leaving aside poor old General Washington, if there was one thing all tea partiers could agree upon it was that no one is their leader. And that was a condition Palin was happy to encourage. "This is about the people," she said. "It isn't about any king or queen of a tea party and it's a lot more than any one charismatic guy with a teleprompter."

Bettina Bibiano, a 47-year-old filmmaker from Los Angeles, said the tea-party movement doesn't need an iconic Obama-like figure. "It's hard for us to unify behind any one person," she explained. "We're not a cult."

4. This We Believe
Small government, lower taxes, greater individual liberties, more power to the states and government strictly by the Constitution and Bill of Rights: these are the general principles all tea-party activists can agree upon, to the extent that there was much discussion about a platform.

Still, some delegates were eager to work their wedge issues. Former Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, who ran for President in 2008 in opposition to the Bush Administration's planned immigration reforms, whipped up the crowd with talk of Obama voters failing civics tests and hinting that they probably didn't even speak English. WorldNetDaily's Joseph Farah trotted out the birther claim that Obama wasn't really born in the United States. But such grandstanding had others worried.

"That kind of rhetoric is counterproductive," said former GOP House majority leader Dick Armey, who now runs Freedom Works, a group that works with the tea-party movement. "It feeds into the hands of the left and allows [the tea party] to be portrayed as people who are angry and accusatory, inflammatory. That is not what this movement has been about. We have to keep our eye on the ball; we have to work to stop people who believe the government should control vast sections of the economy." Armey believes that Obama is bringing up the gays-in-the-military question at this moment specifically to divide the tea-party movement. "He's hoping the grass roots would jump on this and turn away from economic issues," Armey said. "And Obama would just love to change the subject, so my own view is, don't take the bait."

5. President Palin?
At one point on Saturday, some disgruntled Tennessee tea-party activists held a press conference to complain about the cost of attending the event ($549 per person), which they say excluded many supporters. But when asked whether they begrudged Sarah Palin her reported $100,000 speaking fee, they blanched. "Of course not. I love Sarah Palin, we — I think it's safe to say we — all love Sarah Palin," said one of those complaining about ticket prices that presumably helped to pay for her keynote speech. A gushing love of Palin was, in fact, a major point of consensus at the convention. And she loved them right back. "America is ready for another revolution!" she enthused as the audience popped to their feet for the first of many ovations.

Palin, who plans to attend more such events in the coming months, said her speaker's fee would be plowed back into to "the cause." And she plans on helping the movement stump for approved conservative candidates (first up on Sunday was Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is facing a primary challenge from Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison). "You don't need an office or a title to make a difference," Palin said, noting that Saturday would have been Ronald Reagan's 99th birthday. "We are now the keepers of conservative values and good works."