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It is difficult to fully understand the past in moments that are important. It is difficult to appreciate the significance of big events such as the September 11 attacks and the Fall of Berlin Wall or the iPhone release until we actually see them. Catalyst usually aren’t recognized as such until years later. Major events can cause waves; earthquakes are aftershocks.
Which is why there’s a fitting tremor in the political firmament this week, a callback to one of those game-changing moments. Sarah Palin is her real name. The spark in this moment was Senator John McCain.
McCain made the announcement that Palin (at the time Governor of Alaska) would be his vice-presidential running mate. He chose a hockey mom of 44 years with little national recognition as his counterpart for the leader of the free globe. He chose to do so over Govs. Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney. Reporters traveling on the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden, Barack Obama, were surprised by the choice. We left Denver to embark on a bus tour in rural Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. As we tried to get spin from the tired campaign high command, several of us had difficulty pronunciation her name. Did it work? PAY-lin? PAL-en?
There are many stories about that fall, as well as their manifestations. Palin quickly became a force on her own, forgoing McCain’s carefully considered, legacy-eyeing rhetoric. In its place, she threw out allegations that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” and carried into the mainstream the false birtherism idea that Obama was ineligible for the White House because of his birth status. FACT CHECK: Obama was born in Hawaii so was eligible to apply for the job. Palin, objectively speaking, was not well-prepared and under-informed. She also didn’t seem keen to be on the Straight Talk Express. At times, she wasn’t even in the same station.
The McCainiacs already had a victim for their aching campaign: Palin. (They weren’t wrong. A study estimates that McCain was cost more than 2,000,000 votes.
Palin loyalists didn’t hesitate to take a different view. They may have lost the vice presidency and McCain’s respect, but they had reshaped American politics, a generational shift that would culminate in Donald Trump’s ascent.
Palin went back to Alaska where she was Governor for the time being. She was seen as perhaps her party’s next nominee for President, given her ability to fire up crowds, and stoke anti-Obama sentiment at the high levels that the Republican Party desperately sought.
However, she was subject to a lot of scrutiny. The national eyes that landed on her in August of 2008 didn’t leave in November of that year. Was this? This wasHer record as Governor What a real governor! These wereThose curious stories about nepotism, side deals and other oddities that appeared from time to time in the fall? And while the press—and Democrats—were at it, maybe they could figure out her actual beliefs this time before she made a play for the top of the ticket.
Palin and her advisers looked around Juneau and made the cold—but probably correct—call that there was only downside to finishing her first term as governor. The legal bills, open-records request and other expenses just continued to mount. She abruptly declared her resignation on July 4, 2009 but she wasn’t leaving the limelight. Her work was done, and she set out to settle her score with McCain’s campaign—and the GOP itself—in a tell-all memoir. She had already changed politics, making the mean subsoil the new top layer, bending facts and deploying innuendo to serve her agenda, and supercharging George W. Bush’s faux contempt for academia into a graduate course of proud ignorance.
This new foundation for the Republican Party led it to a Tea Party-fueled majority of voters in 2010. It was this majority that would bedevil Obama over the next six years. One point she was considered a favourite to challenge Obama. Reporters were then taken on a confusing cat-and-mouse chase, which looked very much like a campaign test drive, complete with an extremely secret schedule, just to upset journalists. Even making a pilgrimage up to Trump Tower for lunch of New York pizza.
Palin ultimately didn’t get into the 2012 race, but her base also never really warmed to Romney as the nominee, either. Palin’s reverberations in turn made Trump’s candidacy, nomination, and victory possible. Palin, with her brand of reckless Know Nothingism, redefined the Republican Party. Pugilism became a suitable substitute for policy. Twitter trolling replaced truth with populism.
It’s little wonder Trump found such a foothold in the party after Palin had spent the previous half-decade hacking limbs of long-held orthodoxy from it. Palin was the one who had the ability to create the road to power even though she didn’t have any. People liked Palin’s products, while Trump was a sucker for civility.
So, why revisit McCain’s choice that redirected the fate of his party? Palin wants to make a political comeback. Alaskans on Tuesday will use a complicated ranked-voting system to decide who will fill the balance of the late Rep. Don Young’s current term in the House. The voters will rank the top candidates on a list that will determine who will be serving in the 118th Congress, which convenes in January. Alaska is still a conservative state. However, many are struggling to shake the impression that Palin took her chance, ran away and turned it into fame.
But, the possibility Palin will find political redemption should serve as a warning to D.C. because of her past history of being loyal to no party, player, platform or party. The mainstream Republicans would be wise to prepare for Palin becoming yet another power player within the Republican Party. After all, Palin has already remade politics once, and she may have her eyes on far more than Alaska’s desk in the House chamber.
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