10.15.09

Why Palin Mania Won't Die

Even her own consultants tried to kill her off. Former Bush speechwriter Matt Latimer on why Sarah Palin is still the class of a weak 2012 field.

Run away, Tim Pawlenty, as fast as you can.

The latest news in Washington is that the conservative Minnesota governor (and potential 2012 presidential contender) has caught the eye of the city’s top Republican gurus. You remember them. The same guys who last year treated voters to the John McCain experience and whose keen advice left President Bush with a 22 percent approval rating as a parting gift for his eight years in office. If Governor Pawlenty truly has the presidential wisdom these consultants envision, he’ll prove it be showing how fast he can lose their cellphone numbers.

What about Gov. Pawlenty? He couldn’t match the buzz of the “Thrilla from Wasilla” if he swallowed every drug in the pharmacy and did the lambada with Tom DeLay.

But the life of these gurus is complicated—self-complicated, actually, because of their own roles in creating the Republican Party’s last Next Great Hope, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. And unfortunately for them, she refuses to exit, stage right. So with typical grace, the clumsy crew who first trumpeted Palin as the next vice president of the United States has turned on her—and how; these days, they all but threaten to revoke her membership in the Republican Party if she doesn't go away. Not long ago, McCain's campaign honcho, Steve Schmidt, a veteran of Bush-Rove world, publicly labeled a possible Palin presidential candidacy "catastrophic." The smooth-pated Schmidt looked like an angry pit boss asking security to remove a patron who was winning too many chips against the house.

Why won't this woman take a hint, the gurus grump? After all, does anyone truly think Sarah Palin can be the 2012 GOP nominee? To borrow a phrase from everyone's favorite Alaskan, you betcha!

Love her, hate her, or fear her, there is something undeniably mesmerizing about Palin's continuing appeal. She quits her job as governor—some might say erratically—and supporters applaud her courage. She writes a book no one has read, and it’s a bestseller before it hits a single Barnes & Noble.

I was a latecomer to understanding the Alaskan's allure. Fourteen months ago, I was working in the Bush White House when John McCain released Palin from political obscurity. So unknown was she that President Bush joked that he thought she was the governor of Guam. His own political savvy having often been underestimated—or is that misunderestimated?—Bush predicted that the governor and her family had not been prepared for the political Katrina that was about to hit them.

Despite the bruising she took from the Katie Courics and Tina Feys of the world, Palin’s appeal among rank-and-file GOPers never weakened. (To conservatives, scorn by the media is even considered "a badge of honor," if I may quote Dan Quayle.)

At the White House, staffers who never warmed to John McCain embraced Sarah Palin with surprising ferocity—high-fiving each other upon her selection. One senior official printed up bumper stickers reading, "Vote for the hockey mom."

It was easy to understand the disdain for McCain. He seemed to treat the GOP like a dim-witted nephew he was stuck with taking care of after his mother guilted him into it at a family barbecue. Palin, by contrast, was happy to be among us. People tend to forget that she was so popular that McCain aides plopped the Arizona senator next to her at every event. Tens of thousands of the faithful suddenly came to his rallies, finally outnumbering members of the media and Secret Service. Standing beside her with his weird half-grin, McCain looked like a 72-year-old male version of actress Sally Field, who famously blurted out with disbelief "you like me!" right after winning an Oscar. As the polls bounced in McCain's favor—even in key swing states—Republicans were absolutely convinced the election was ours, thanks to her.

We all know how the election ended, of course, but Palinmania...well, it didn't. Some supporters now concede bravely that her debut might have had a flaw or two, though just as many fault the media for harping on her missteps. Others have real questions about her qualifications, but they’re willing to give her a chance to answer them. Much to the chagrin of the self-appointed presidential selectors at the top of the party.

Palin isn't going away (at least not yet) because in her own way she represents what Barack Obama represented for many Democrats: someone who stands apart from the corrupt and cynical Washington system that has let true believers down. Republicans remember that Palin stood up against the crooked Republican establishment in Alaska—while out-of touch GOP senators in Washington actually applauded Alaska's crony-in-chief, Ted "Bridge to Nowhere" Stevens, after he was booted out of office amid scandal. (The charges against Stevens were eventually dropped.)

The rank-and-file are tired of the bland phonies running the GOP. They are tired of Republican compromises that bloated spending and expanded the federal government. And they feel helpless against a team of buddies running each campaign more cynically than the last. GOP voters just might be ready to burn their village down in order to save it. You can almost hear the line now. What's the difference between a hockey mom and Robespierre? Lipstick.

If the grand pooh-bahs of the GOP think they can find someone to push her aside, their pickings seem drearily slim. Version 2.0 of the governor affectionately known in some circles as “Mitt Rom-bot” is currently under construction. It will probably function just as lamely as the last. Poor Governor Romney. Every move the Mittster makes looks like it has first been diagrammed in a PowerPoint presentation. When commentators noted that even his hair looked too perfect, his aides mussed it up. It ended up looking perfectly disheveled. We've had enough inauthenticity for a while.

As for our would-be savior, Governor Pawlenty? We’ve seen him before. He's the kindly local pharmacist who always remembers to ask after your kids. But he couldn't match the buzz of the “Thrilla from Wasilla” if he swallowed every drug in the pharmacy and did the lambada with Tom DeLay.

Dick Cheney? Newt Gingrich? Maybe if voters are seeking a reunion of the Republican Party's Class of 1995.

So in the meantime, Tina Fey should keep her makeup ready and her writers primed. Sarah Palin will be with us for a while, the "first dude" proudly at her side. GOP graybeards many gnash their teeth. But they have no one to blame but themselves. After all, they were the ones who put forward the gritty Alaskan they are so tackily trying to put down.

Matt Latimer is the author of The New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.