The real sign that Sarah Palin was finally serious about running for president, missed by most, came in early May and was thus buried under the news of the bin Laden killing. But it was then that Ben Smith of Politico first reported that Randy Scheunemann and Michael Goldfarb, her longtime advisers on foreign policy, had fired her, and she’d decided in their stead to shack up with an associate of Andrew Breitbart named Peter Schweizer. Why did this, to the initiated, signal her “seriousness” about running? Precisely because linking arms with Breitbart-world was such an utterly superficial and unserious move, wholly political in nature, and perfectly in keeping with everything we know about the old high-school-basketball-playing elbow-flinger’s notion of how one advances in this world.
Now, with the coming bus tour and hagiographic film—it should be titled The Iquitarod, wrote an inspired contributor to a list of parodic names on the blog Balloon Juice—it appears that Palin’s intentions are set. Like most liberals, I’m happy to sit back and watch the multi-car pileup in the Republican Party that she will inevitably induce. But for the same reason that we try to avoid inviting the drunk relation to Thanksgiving dinner, I’d actually prefer never having to think about her again, and I preemptively lament the corrosive effect her unvarying diet of lies and demagoguery will have on our politics. The Republican primary will likely set up in such a way that she’ll be able to pull the field, and the party, hard to the right, and while that will be fine for Barack Obama come Election Day, it will help cripple any attempt to do anything constructive afterward.
First, Scheunemann, Goldfarb, and Schweizer. Whatever one might have to say about Scheunemann and Goldfarb—neocon warmongers, to pick one example—it is the case that they’ve both established reputations as being reasonably serious about the world. From all available accounts— Game Change and so on—they really did try to get the former half-termer interested in the difference between South and North Korea. Schweizer is a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, which bestows a patina of respectability; but he is best known these days for editing the blog Big Peace, part of the online sewage system burrowed by Breitbart. Cruise the site’s musings on the bin Laden killing, where you’ll see praise for our heroic SEALs but continued admonitions about Barack Obama’s hatred of flag and uniform (“Despite Obama, the Military Triumphs”) and his ongoing assorted appeasements (treating bin Laden’s dead body respectfully, not releasing the photos, etc.).
Watch: Palin’s Bus Tour Trailer
One can readily see why Palin’s own statement on the event conspicuously did not mention the president. Beyond that, Smith reported that the Schweizer association signals a more isolationist turn in Palin’s foreign-policy views, and indeed she has tweeted and Facebooked critically about the Libyan incursion. The move is vintage Palin: the neocons served their purpose, but they’re yesterday’s news. The new posture is very Tea Party-ish, so it’s clearly an attempt to hop a ride on that train—and historically, it’s certainly more in keeping with the paranoid, right-wing fringe style of America First politics she embodies in so many other respects.
The other Republicans will be extremely cautious about taking her on. Palin will tear into them, and they won’t tear back—because they want her voters after she drops out.
So this is where we’re headed, if she runs, down into this abyss of reactionary sloganeering. And while she may not be the nominee, she’s likely to have a huge impact on the race. The other Republican candidates are going to be extremely cautious about taking her on. Not only or even mainly because she’s a woman; more than that, because she has the largest following of any of them among the GOP base, by far. It’s a crucial point here that all the leading candidates have histories of apostasy: Mitt Romney on health care, Tim Pawlenty on carbon and the environment, Jon Huntsman on having worked for Obama (and even now Newt Gingrich, having thundered against Paul Ryan’s budget). Palin will tear into them, and they’ll probably be loath to tear back, because they want her voters after she drops out. So if she’s smart—and that she is, at least in this particular way—she should be able to set the terms of discourse by saying outrageous things and then watching as reporters ask the others whether they agree with her, and they say, out of mortal fear of the base, yes I do.
These other candidates will be like that poor protagonist in District 9—mysterious Palin fluid will spray onto their faces and the infection will inevitably hit them. As I said, that will be fun to watch. But the fluid might someday splash on the rest of us, too. She’s now in possession of 8,000 square feet and 4.4 acres on which to roam. I ache for the day she retires there permanently.
Newsweek/Daily Beast Special Correspondent Michael Tomasky is also editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.