How politically credible are the leading figures in the Tea Party movement that is rallying this weekend at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville?
Don’t ask a scared Democratic strategist.
Don’t ask an embattled mainstream Republican.
Don’t ask "the liberal media."
Let them Tea Party proclaimers rant, er, speak, for themselves.
The "star" of the kick off of the Tea Party convention was former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Republican who made his name by calling for the abolition of the Congressional Black Caucus and said your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free: "They’re coming here to kill you, and you, and me, and my grandchildren."
As a congressman, Tancredo drew national attention when he appeared at a "League of the South" rally decked out with "a prominent picture of Robert E. Lee and was draped with Confederate battle flags. At the closing of the event, men dressed in Confederate military uniforms reportedly began to sing ‘Dixie.’"
Later, he condemned Pope Benedict XVI for recalling the Biblical urging to welcome the stranger in remarks regarding immigration. "I suspect the pope’s immigration comments may have less to do with spreading the gospel than they do about recruiting new members of the church," said Tancredo. "This isn’t preaching; it is faith-based marketing."
Tancredo was on message as he opened the Tea Party party session in Nashville — suggesting that immigrants elected a president named "Hussein": "People who could not spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House — name is Barack Hussein Obama."
But it’s not just Obama.
"The revolution has come," grumbled Tancredo, who will be followed on the podium this weekend by the equally remarkable Sarah Palin. "It was led by the cult of multiculturalism aided by leftist liberals all over who don’t have the same ideas about America as we do."
That might sound a little divisive.
It also, in fairness, is out of synch with the themes the Tea Party movement initially used to attract activists: anger about bank bailouts, about fiscal and political policies that seem always to favor Wall Street over Main Street and about a secretive Federal Reserve that practices what can only be called crony capitalism with the likes of Tim Geithner and the executives of AIG.
So how smart is it to make Tancredo the face of the movement?
How effective is he as a political player?
He did get elected to Congress a few times from an overwhelmingly Republican district in Colorado.
But when he took his message national in 2007, as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination — with the slogan: "Tancredo: Before It’s Too Late" — he campaigned for the better part of a year and earned front-and-center position in the many GOP debates.
Unfortunately for Tancredo, front-and-center position meant that Americans got a chance to see the congressman uncensored.
There was a classic exchange with another contender, Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, the son of a postal worker who suggested that labor unions might have done some good for America:
Tancredo: "Sam, I don’t, your mom, if she was a postal worker, believe me, she didn’t need a union on top of civil service benefits"
Brownback: "Don’t pick on my mother"
Tancredo: "I’m sure she was a sweetheart."
Brownback: "Leave my mother out of this."
Tancredo: "Especially with regard to, need I say it, illegal immigration…"
Brownback: "My mother is not an illegal immigrant."
It just got worse as the campaign went on.
Tancredo’s poll numbers, never good, tanked.
The congressman was registering less than the margin of error — under two percent — when Tancredo quit the race on the eve of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Despite more than 120 campaign visits to the two states, Tancredo was serious competition for last place in each of them.
As he leads the Tea Partiers, media outlets refer to Tancredo as a "former Republican presidential candidate."
Technically, of course, this is true.
The question is whether he was a credible presidential candidate.
Republicans didn’t think so.
Neither did serious conservatives.
After Tancredo suggested that the sharp response to future terrorist attacks would be bombing Mecca and other Muslim holy sites, National Review commentator John Podhoretz summed sentiments up: "Tom Tancredo is an idiot."
As his own campaign crashed and burned, Tancredo was asked to name the Democratic presidential contender he preferred.
The congressman’s response: "Although I couldn’t vote for him, if I had to support one for a nominee it would be Obama, and I would do so because first, I believe we could beat him, but secondly, and less cynically, I think it would be very good to have a black man, a good family man, and a very articulate man, to have him as a role model for a lot of black children in this country."
That was Tom Tancredo on Obama in 2007.
In 2010, he’s calling Obama "a committed socialist ideologue."
But not much else has changed.
Tancredo is still making statements that cause reactions like those once described by conservative commentator David Frum after he attended one of the former congressman’s speeches: "jaws dropped in amazement after he made the comments. Some looked around in awe and asked ‘Is he serious?’"
But that does not mean that responsible people, be they Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, Obama enthusiasts or Tea Partiers, should treat him seriously.
Indeed, to do so, is to insult not Barack Obama but sincere critics of the president.
A movement that puts Tom Trancredo on its podium is inviting moments where jaws drop in amazement as Americans look around in awe and ask: "Is he serious?" — and, more damagingly for the Tea Partisans: "Are they serious?"