Sarah Palin fascinates me. No, not because I support her politics (‘Gosh no!’ as she might say), or because Vanity Fair is going to run a huge spread of her in October, but because she has become the most charismatic figure in American politics. It seems an eternity ago when Barack Obama was the reigning rock star and Republicans were on the way out. Now the once Cool Cat/JFK reincarnation has reverted back to being the bland/ultra-nerd law professor he was, and the Democrats in Congress are stuck in a morass that only they could have produced. Instead of signing boring legislation and actually governing, Ms. Palin resigned from the Governor’s job, on her way to bigger and better things.
Since her first brush with national fame about two years ago, Ms. Palin has not merely seized the limelight and made a small fortune as a conservative spokesperson, but has become the de facto leader of the Tea Party Movement among Republicans, a bonafide kingmaker and the odds-on favorite to win the Republican Presidential nomination in 2012. About half the Republican candidates she’s endorsed this year have won their respective primaries. Last week Palin nemesis Senator Lisa Murkowski conceded defeat to a first-time candidate she backed. The message is clear: mess with Sarah, and you’re gonna get whacked.
Even if she loses in 2012, she will make history by her nomination alone; and unless she says something colossally cruel or stupid, she will remain a force in American politics for years on end. Mitt Romney-are you kidding me? Ever seen a Sarah Palin rally? Romney couldn’t attract a crowd like that if he paid for it.
Palin has looks, charisma (to her followers) and timing, but she also has superb political instincts. She is keenly aware that our politics has become a culture of celebrity, where fame is more valuable than experience and a tough stance or catchy sound bite more effective than a major legislative accomplishment (notice how Obama’s poll numbers decline after each bill he signs into law). Making laws is for wonks; winning elections is for stars.
She’s been compared to Hillary Clinton because of her gender and because of her massive ambition; and Sarah Palin’s rise, in a sense, is a triumph for American feminism. But the figure in American politics Palin resembles most is neither Hillary Clinton nor Ronald Reagan, whom she admires, but Richard Milhous Nixon. That’s right: Palin is the closest thing we’ve got to Tricky Dick, but less in her slippery scheming than in her brand of identity politics. Although Nixon was a Congressman, Senator and Vice-President and served in World War II before becoming President, he always positioned himself as the quintessential outsider. He never forgot that he was too poor to attend Harvard University, and he never stopped railing against the “Eastern Establishment,” which was often Ivy-League trained. Sarah Palin’s interrupted college education (also due to financial difficulties) has given her a connection with those who continue to be excluded from the pinnacles of power. And because she is a Republican populist, it doesn’t matter if she gets accepted into the best country clubs or hobnobs with the coolest celebrities. To her devoted, mostly white, conservative, evangelical and rural followers, she will always be one of “them” simply because she wears her conservative, evangelical and rural roots on her designer sleeves.
I’m convinced that Sarah Palin will run in 2012, if for no reason because she’s brazen and because it will help further book sales. Taking on a sitting president whose poll numbers have been dropping along with the U. S. GDP is too tempting a target. She also senses that 2016 is too far into the future to be a cakewalk to the nomination. Hillary Clinton played it safe and skipped a fight in 2004, only to get blindsided by Obama and the ‘Change’ juggernaut four years later.
Whether you love her or loathe her-like the millions divided about Richard Nixon-Sarah Palin is here to stay. And if nothing else, she certainly will not be boring.