March 29, 2010

Return of Sarah Barracuda (as though she'd ever left)

This weekend was a banner one for the Tea Party Patriots.

After some really ugly PR during the climax of the health care debate, they have pivoted to turn their seemingly depthless anger at vulnerable Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. But the weekend also included a rally for one vulnerable Republican: Senator John McCain, the Republicans' 2008 presidential nominee.  McCain, the former GOP moderate straight-talker and one-time darling of the political media, currently faces a reelection challenge from a far-right, de facto Tea Party candidate.

That led to the latest re-emergence of Sarah Palin, the movement's superstar, a source of endless fascination for political reporters and pundits on the left and right.  This fascination persists, despite Palin's long record of self-contradictory, at times hypocritical statements during her short time on the national stage.  Some of those statements  -- think the infamous Katie Couric interview in 2008 -- would have cleanly stripped the veneer of credibility from a lesser (or perhaps less photogenic) politician.

Consider: Dan Quayle was a sitting US senator in 1988, when President George HW Bush tapped him to be his veep.  Quayle looked good on TV but was a disaster when he opened his mouth, and was widely derided as as an empty suit with a head to match.  He quickly became the butt of jokes on late-night TV shows and, after his boss lost to President Clinton in 1992, Quayle faded into obscurity -- despite nearly a decade in elected office and strong conservative bona fides.

These days, Quayle probably couldn't get arrested in this town, let alone do as well as Palin, who was the butt of a long-running Saturday Night Live skit; quit before completing a full term as Alaska governor; got into a public feud with her erstwhile son-in-law; yet still scored well-paying gigs on Fox News and a reality TV show.

Palin has somehow defied the laws of political gravity, despite a Quayle-like profile including a featherweight political resume, lack of intellectual heft and an inability to rescue McCain's floundering presidential campaign on charisma alone.  Her success is probably due to her sheer determination and force of personality as much as the political industrial complex's collective decision to take her seriously, despite dismal poll numbers that place her somewhere between Richard Nixon and George Bush.

It's been interesting to witness Palin's ascendancy from the mayor of a tiny Alaska town to the vice presidential nominee of a major political party, a lightly-educated yet unbelievably savvy politician who nearly was a heartbeat away from the presidency.

In her latest incarnation, she has become the personification of a political movement that, for some reason, continues to receive attention, despite its relatively small size, its lack of mainstream popularity and its lack of a coherent, resonant message beyond white, middle-aged rage

The Barracuda's weekend stumping led to kind of a meta-moment for the self-described Hockey Mom.  At the rally against Reid, she openly returned the enthusiastic embrace of the TP faithful even though mainstream conservatives see it as a political fringe movement.  But she then lent her considerable star power to boost McCain's standing among TP'ers -- even though McCain is the type of establishment Republican the TP seems to loathe.

While Palin seems to be doing quite well for herself after her failed run for the vice presidency, this article does a nice job explaining where the Tea Party might go from here -- and why it is probably destined to fail as a long-term political movement.

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