That Sarah Palin will be speaking at what’s being billed as the first “National Tea Party Convention” makes complete sense. A popular movement that is still trying to figure out exactly what it is will be addressed by a popular woman still trying to figure out exactly what she is.

For now, this is OK. Come to think of it, this confusion or vagueness concerning ideology and identity amongst grassroots conservatives is much better than OK — it’s a necessary and encouraging journey.

As the Left and liberal media tries to portray outspoken Americans fed up with government spending as some sort of wacky fringe, the much-maligned “tea baggers” actually represent the first sign of sanity on the mainstream Right in some time. Perhaps it took the extreme spending example of President Obama’s Democratic Party to induce fear in so many about America’s future, but it is also significant that the tea partiers don’t seem to find any worthwhile value in the recent Republican past. In fact, Republican politicians who supported TARP or stimulus spending remain primary targets of the tea party set, and the big-government, big-spending, warmongering of the George W. Bush years seems to have become a distant, often embarrassing memory. Reported ABC News this month, “So-called ‘tea party patriots’ are members of a political movement sweeping America whose core beliefs center around fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets.”

“Fiscal responsibility?” “Constitutionally limited government?” “Free markets?” Isn’t this just long established, stock Republican language? It is. The difference is, unlike grassroots Republicans of the past 30 years, the mostly conservative and independent folks who make up the tea party movement are beginning to realize that the so-called party of “limited government” has not delivered.

But who might deliver? Generally not comfortable with the same old Republican establishment types, Palin is perceived as someone outside the Beltway, who is held at arm’s length by GOP elites and who is abused mercilessly by the mainstream media — just like the tea partiers. Given the dynamics in play, no one should be surprised that the tea party movement has embraced Palin. But it could be that Palin’s emergence as a tea party favorite is more indicative of a thirst for leadership than a thirst for Palin.

If the ideologically incoherent Palin is embraced simply because she is perceived as anti-establishment, so is the more politically sound Rand Paul. Thanks in no small part to the tea partiers, Paul has a good shot of becoming a US Senator in 2010, or as reports:

“As rumors are circulating as to which politician may be able to lead the Tea Party movement into Washington D.C. many are talking but very few are working as hard as Kentucky US Senate candidate Rand Paul… While his Republican primary opponent (Trey Grayson) enjoys the support of the GOP establishment, namely Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, it does not seem to be translating into votes. It will be interesting to see how extensively the RNC and the GOP establishment is willing spend resources on a campaign that is already looking desperate for Grayson. And if Grayson fails, will McConnell ever back Rand Paul?”

It’s a good question, especially considering that men like Mitch McConnell are part of that old Republican guard that grassroots conservatives used to dutifully obey. Not anymore. As the son of popular libertarian maverick Ron Paul–the presidential candidate most troublesome to the RNC in 2008 — Ron’s son Rand might become the next US Senator from Kentucky precisely because he is perceived as an antagonist of the establishment, not merely despite it. Notes “While names such as Sarah Palin and Gary Johnson are thrown around as the potential leaders of the Tea Party movement, it is Rand Paul that is on the ground raising real dollars that look as though they will soon translate into real votes.”

I’m not a big fan of Sarah Palin precisely because I don’t know what she stands for and am not sure she does either. Regardless, I do recognize a certain value in her popularity and in many ways Palin is perfect, at least symbolically, for this moment in the tea party movement.

But the tea partiers cannot simply stop with Palin. They have to keep evolving. Unlike Palin, I’m a fan of Rand Paul precisely because I have a confident grasp of what he stands for, much of it to do with his father. While Rand is his own man, it is still safe to say that the Paul political lineage is based on tangible conservative principle and not mere personality. Such serious conservative principle can be, and eventually must be, the guiding force for any tea parties worth having. And any future political force based on a genuine desire for limited government coupled with an unrelenting distaste for both the Republican and Democratic establishments could finally be the popular movement serious conservatives have been waiting for.