Levi Johnston, a 19-year-old with a perhaps undeserved reputation as a backwoods simpleton, has done what Barack Obama and Joe Biden and sneering liberals and cringing conservatives couldn’t: He has killed off Sarah Palin as a serious contender for the next Republican presidential nomination. And I have to say, this depresses the hell out of me.
By now everyone knows about Johnston’s on-again, off-again romance with Palin’s daughter Bristol. During the campaign, the fact that Bristol was pregnant with Johnston’s child sparked a minor culture war, with pro-lifers rallying to the Palin family’s defense while a coalition of censorious snobs from the left and the right blasted Bristol for her irresponsibility. Back then, the official line from the Palins was that Levi and Bristol were getting married—and indeed, Levi had an elaborate finger tattoo to prove it. At the time, I found the Bristol-Levi story incredibly affecting. Here were two kids who were probably in over their heads, but they were trying to make it work. And here is this big, sprawling, weird, wonderful American family that had their backs during this completely wrenching time. Palin came across as a different kind of Republican, and her slightly messy life seemed to prove it.
Since returning to Alaska, one can’t help but get the impression that Palin is a clownish, vindictive amateur.
But sure enough, like so many young loves, the engagement later dissolved. Instead of just giving his would-be in-laws the stink-eye over Thanksgiving dinner, Levi lashed out at supposedly snobbish Sarah on the Tyra Banks show. Inevitably, the Palins counterattacked, and the whole tawdry episode has given the Republican elite—those mysterious, shadowy pointy-heads who control the purse strings—second and third thoughts about Project Palin.
This is only the latest indignity in the long, slow downward spiral that’s been Palin’s brief career as a national figure, as everything clever and distinctive about her has been replaced by an unrecognizable Reaganite fembot caricature. Months before Palin was selected as McCain’s running mate, I told anyone who’d listen that she’d be the shrewdest pick. When she addressed the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, I was utterly electrified. But during the latter days of the campaign, I started hearing rumors about how top-level McCain backers were shuttling back-and-forth to Alaska to put out various fires, and of course there has been a steady drumbeat of stories about Palin’s low-level abuse of power. Then there is the fact that the national Republican Party has destroyed much of what was great about Sarah Palin, and she let them do it.
For all its virtues, Alaska has a very quirky political culture, one that doesn’t always translate in the lower 48. At first, this was Palin’s strength. She wasn’t a Southern evangelical, a familiar—some would say overfamiliar—figure in Republican politics. Rather, she was a Northern evangelical, with an accent that almost made her sound like a Minnesotan. Despite her meteoric rise as a foot soldier of Wasilla’s Christian right, she also cut a strangely post-partisan figure in her early days as governor. As she told The New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch long before she was selected as McCain’s running mate, she was actually glad that Barack Obama was polling well in Alaska because it represented a challenge to the status quo. Suffice to say, most rising Republican stars would stick to praising John McCain.
Palin was quirky in another respect: Recognizing that Alaska had to carve out its own path, she broke with Beltway Republicans in supporting a windfall-profits tax on oil companies among other populist measures. But once Palin signed up as McCain’s running mate, she couldn’t talk up the windfall-profits tax, one of her central accomplishments, because the Republicans in Congress bitterly opposed it. Palin also had a gift for communicating policy details in homespun language. Soon after meeting the McCain team, she reportedly pressed for proposals that she could sell to working mothers and small-business owners and other key constituencies. The sad truth is that the McCain platform, a mish-mash that reflected the often-contradictory input of dozens of advisers and donors, didn’t give her much to work with. Sarah Palin thus became red meat for the base—the pitbull with lipstick.
Palin’s campaign antics can be forgiven. What can’t be forgiven is the ham-handed way she’s tried to build her national profile since she returned to Alaska. She’s abandoned the bold right-left populism that won over Alaska voters—and me—in the first place in favor of an increasingly defensive and harsh partisanship. After making her name as a determined enemy of Alaska’s corrupt Republican establishment, she recently called for Democratic Sen. Mark Begich to step down so the hilariously crooked Ted Stevens could get another crack at the seat. She loudly promised to leave federal stimulus money on the table before clawing that promise back with a whimper. One can’t help but get the impression that Palin is a clownish, vindictive amateur.
Now, for example, Palin is raising hackles for naming colorful crackpot Wayne Anthony Ross to be Alaska’s attorney general. It turns out that Palin may have consulted with Ross over a state senate appointment, a move that would have been against state law. As a general matter, state law is something you might want your AG to be on top of.
What I’m wondering is: Has Sarah Palin undergone some kind of secret lobotomy?
Reihan Salam is a fellow at The America Foundation and the co-author of Grand New Party.