Absurdly Premature 2012 Watch, Volume 8: Should the Tea Party Trust Palin?

If "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability tofunction," as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, then both Sarah Palin and her tea-party fans are about to be tested.

Last month, the former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee agreed to headline the first-ever tea-party convention in Nashville, cementing her status as the movement's spiritual leader and giving the ever-eager punditocracy a new piece of "Palin-phernalia" to prattle on about—namely, her reported $100,000 speaking fee

Although Palin insisted at the time that she would "not financially be gaining anything" from the event, it wasn't immediately clear where all that money would be going instead. On Wednesday she finally offered up a less cryptic explanation. "My only goal is to support the grassroots activists who are fighting for responsible, limited government—and our Constitution," Palin wrote in USA Today. "In that spirit, any compensation for my appearance will go right back to the cause."

"Right back to the cause." So far, most reporters have focused on the obvious problem here: individuals like Palin "can only donate$5,000 per calendar year to any PAC, including her own, andonly$2,400 to a federal-office-seeking candidate per election"—meaning that if giving back to tea-party candidates and tea-party committees were Palin's only goal, waiving the fee would've been a heck of a lot easier than accepting the cash, dividing it into tiny increments, and then returning it to the people who gave it to her in the first place.

But I, for one, am in a rather charitable mood this morning. So let's assume that Palin does ultimately plan to donate her newfound dinero to "the cause." My question is, what evidence do tea partiers have that her cause is their cause? In other words, what reason do they have to trust her?

Just follow the money. While Palin's PAC has occasionally contributed to politicians—such as Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, andMarsha Blackburn—with tea-party sympathies or support, she's been just as likely, at least so far, tofunnel her resources toward establishment Republicans, many of whomhave been deemed insufficiently conservative by grassroots activistsand now find themselves campaigning against tea-party-type challengers back home. (That is, when she's not using the money to buy copies of her own book.)

Last year, for example, Palin donated $5,000 toher former boss, John McCain, even though—as a past supporter ofclimate-change legislation, campaign-finance reform, and amnesty forillegal immigrants—he's considered a RINO (Republican in name only)by many tea partiers, including his new primary opponent, J. D.Hayworth. Still, Palin plans to campaign for McCain—against Hayworth—in the coming months.

Meanwhile, she's chosen to invest in Missouri's Roy Blunt over his tea-partyish foe (Chuck Purgason), and Ohio's Jean Schmidt over hers (Mike Kilburn). When conservatives threatened Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley last year for working with Democrats on health care, Palin sent some cash his way. She even cut a check to global-warming heretic Lindsey "Democrat in Drag" Graham. 

None of which is all that surprising, really: Palin is a politician, and making the right friends is as much a part of positioning oneself for a Republican presidential run as making friends on the right. That said, if tea partiers are looking for a leader who's devoted solely to "the cause," Palin probably isn't their girl. Her intelligence may turn out to be too "first rate" for the gig.

Want to see more of Sarah? Check out NEWSWEEK's photo history of her career here.

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