Back when Republicans controlled the White House and Congress, all the political energy was on the left -- specifically, the emerging Net Roots movement that dispelled Clintonian centrism from the Democratic party.
These days, with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress, all the political energy is on the right -- specifically, the Tea Party free-market populist movement that opposes big-government spending, taxation, and regulation.
Tea Party enthusiasm has jolted the Republican party from its slumber. When GOP politicians oppose Obama's agenda, they do so because they know the Tea Partiers have their backs. If the Tea Party hadn't started on February 19, 2009, with Rick Santelli's famous rant on CNBC, Republicans would have remained rudderless and disunited throughout Obama's first year in office.
One of the strengths of the Tea Party is that it does not have a leader. The movement is organic, diverse, and in flux. It encompasses all sorts of folks, from disillusioned independents, to Ron Paul supporters, to first-time voters upset at the direction in which America is headed. This poses a political challenge for liberals, since they have found it hard to demonize an entire movement (not for lack of trying!). It is easier to demonize a single person, especially if the public already finds him polarizing.
And while certain Republican politicians are favorites at the Tea Party -- Michele Bachmann, Doug Hoffman, Marco Rubio, Scott Brown -- the activists do not have an icon. They have not rallied behind a single individual.
But that may be about to change.
Sarah Palin is clearly mounting a bid to lead the Tea Party. Last year, she endorsed Bill Hoffman's Tea Party campaign against liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens. This week, she endorsed Tea Party favorite Rand Paul in the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky. She will address a Tea Party convention in Nashville on Saturday; Fox News Channel will broadcast her speech live. In a USA Today column, Palin announces she will also appear at Tea Party functions in Harry Reid's hometown of Searchlight, Nevada (March), and Boston (April).
The soul of the Tea Party is the people who belong to it — everyday Americans who grow our food, run our small businesses, teach our children how to read, serve the less fortunate and fight our wars. They're folks in small towns and cities across this nation who saw what was happening to our country and decided to get involved. Thank God for them. Many of these good Americans had never been involved in their government before, but now they attend town hall meetings and participate in online forums. They write letters to the editor. They sign up to be precinct leaders and run for local office and support other independent patriots. They have the courage to stand up and speak out.
Their vision is what drew me to the Tea Party movement. They believe in the same principles that guided my work in public service — whether I was working on the PTA and city council or serving as a mayor, commissioner or governor. I look forward to meeting some of these great Americans this weekend.
Palin's self-identification with the Tea Party is important. Clearly she sees parallels between the popular movements that brought her to office in Wasilla and Juneau and the movement currently pulling American politics to the right. Palin relishes her role as political outsiders -- the Tea Partiers are "passionate outsiders," as well. If Obama persists in his attempts to legislate a liberal-left agenda, and the economy continues to stagnate, these passionate outsiders may decide not only the 2012 GOP primary. They may decide the next president of the United States.
But the move carries dangers. I've previously argued that Palin needs to address the concerns of voters who liked her initially but now feel she isn't ready for high office. Some of them may be in the Tea Party -- but certainly not all of them. A successful national politician is forever seeking the support of new voting blocs; Palin already has a lock on the pro-life, anti-big-government vote. That's a start. But the key to the presidency lies in combining that vote with the moderate suburbanites who voted Democratic in 2006 and 2008 but began to return to the GOP in 2009. Does leading the Tea Party increase Palin's chances of accomplishing this goal?