Before the 2016 campaign for president could even begin in earnest, the greatest political romance of our times has already died. And it could make all the difference next November.
In a turn that was perhaps inevitable but nonetheless remarkable, Sarah Palin delivered a hyped-up speech (at Iowa's high-profile Freedom Summit) that drew disappointing reviews from within her own base of support.
To the surprise of no one, Palin's critics blew a gasket straining to capture the extent of their contempt for the warmed-over address. An apparent TelePrompTer malfunction -- the nightmare of pols ten times more polished and canny than Palin -- only added to their sense of gleeful horror.
But with her rambling rehash of familiar tropes and postures, Palin finally outlasted the patience and goodwill of her own core constituency -- the red-meat grassroots and the movement conservative media. Without any infrastructure, without any institutional platform, Palin could always count on her brand of performance art to put going rogue back in vogue. No longer.
Small-time soap opera, you say. End of an error. Actually, this is a big deal. Because the Palin phenomenon -- the popularity, the opportunism, the branding, and, yes, the politics -- all arose from a single source. Palin's importance wasn't as a new kind of conservative, ideologically speaking. It was as a new kind of politician.
There had never been a Republican or a Democrat with Palin's combination of personality, character, youthfulness, and very specifically gendered sort of sex. Even to the critics, she didn't come off as a pencil-necked weenie like Bobby Jindal or a sound-body-sound-mind orthogonian like Paul Ryan.
Being a woman helped. But, to borrow a line of analysis from critical theory, Palin wasn't gendered the same way as other political women, in any party. She was no granny in a pantsuit, like Elizabeth Dole or Hillary Clinton. She doesn't come off as fustily professional as Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman. Palin's character type can never be a career politician because she's not even a career woman, in that stereotypical manner now apotheosized by Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer.
Palin's life experience mattered because it betokened the entry into politics of a new kind of woman -- equally into sports, guns, and kids. Palin's character type eventually appeared to exist everywhere across the vast red swath of the American interior. Conservatives have long understood in what complex way their youthful women could be masculine without losing the femininity. (Tocqueville bemusedly praised American ladies' "manly virtue.") The revolution was in a conservative woman mobilizing that naturally grown manner in the arena of national politics.
However you choose to slice and dice gender identities, you must admit that Palin's success arose from her own — and that losing her appeal in spite of it, much like earning an F in English, took a lot of willpower to pull off.
The failure was on glaring display when the right-leaning Washington Examiner went in search of praise for Palin's prospects, but notable figures in the conservative mediasphere balked. Red-state stalwarts like HotAir's Ed Morrissey sighed that her speech "wasn't well prepared”; Gabriel Malor at Ace of Spades HQ said simply: "She is done."
Voices like these, once locked into mutual admiration with the rogue Republican who decried the “lamestream” media, can't by themselves consign Palin to the political scrapheap. As they freely admit, however, the grassroots has "generally moved on," too, in the words of Ben Domenech (whose website, The Federalist, I have written for).
So the essential question for 2016 is where, or whom, they'll move on to. The tea party ethos that Palin helped midwife may be protean and loosely organized, but it hasn't weakened much as a political force. This year's crop of presumptive Republican candidates offers the conservative base its strongest, broadest, and most credible choices ever. Domenech could plausibly suggest to the Examiner that contenders with an outsider appeal, such as Gov. Scott Walker Or Sen. Ted Cruz, were well positioned to attract and energize Palin's former constituency.
But character type is deeper, and it’s prior to politics. The true heir to Palin's constituency will be a woman. How could it be otherwise?
It's a question not lost on the Republican elite, which is smart enough to know there is no real reason Palin's character type can't be brought into a more establishmentarian alignment. Enter Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst — servicewoman, heartland heroine, and the no-brainer choice to respond to the president's State of the Union on behalf of the whole Republican Party. Even a pig-castrating farm girl, you see, can find her way into the arms of such king- and queen-makers as Mitt Romney.
To her credit, Ernst possesses far more discipline than Palin, whose taste for guns did not extend into a longing for the military life. But if the whiff of the establishment gets too strong around her, the base will balk -- just ask Marco Rubio. And the jilted Palin constituency will be up for grabs again.