The story behind Sarah Palin’s arrival on the national stage is seldom-discussed by mainstream pundits and analysts on either side of the American political divide, but it’s well-known to political academics and insiders. Bill Kristol was the earliest and most influential of Republican political intellectuals to support the idea that she was capable, if managed correctly, of contributing her unique form of populism to a well-organized defeat of an opponent whose intellectual strength could not be matched. Such was Karl Rove’s spectacular political success in delivering a two-term Republican president, and George W. Bush proved to be, with very few exceptions, quite the manageable guy.
In Palin, Kristol smartly saw someone who could excite the same breed of American that Rove was instrumental in harnessing. The kind of folks that feel oppressed by the secular, oppressed by the urban, oppressed by the media, oppressed by academia, gays, the UN, brown people and perhaps complexity itself. Such voters are highly suggestible to metaphors of apocalypse; one reason they’re useful to neo-cons and others with sophisticated designs on marginalizing Islamic communities, which, like much off America, aren’t perceived by Palin’s admirers of to be standing anywhere near Jesus as judgment day draws nearer.
This stuff is real. Palin’s supporters are real, and their numbers are real. Their vision, however, diverges sharply from basic realities of science and logic that are widely accepted in America—too widely to elect someone as outspoken in her controversial beliefs as Palin. Bush believed in the power of prayer, the culture of life and other rhetorically acceptable spins on religion’s role in governing, but that’s because Bush knew he had to first run his ideas through Rove, whose sense of rhetoric and political consequence was keen, before expressing his ideas to the masses. It was a good system. Bush made a lot of mistakes in governing, because he was influenced by so much mistaken philosophy. (Preemptive war, for instance.) But he made comparatively few political mistakes. Two presidential terms, in American politics, is bowling a 300.
Palin is a political mistake machine. Relying on her own political intuitions instead of the advice of those who handed her the McCain opportunity, her conduct helped to crush the presidential aspirations of an American war hero in probably his final opportunity. Her national grandstanding in the months that followed badly hurt her Alaskan constituency, and at a point when polls and experts agreed that her prospects for re-election as an incumbent were less-than-safe, she announced her that she’d resign. That’s not how you get to the White House, if you’re counting on doing so with either political party behind you.
But Palin may not be. It’s hard to say who, exactly, Palin does count on politically, what sort of political coalition she intends to build, and with whose money and supporters. But her Republican options are not clear, and her Republican allies, to the extent that they remain, now know the damage she’s capable of doing. She’s an exciter, not a uniter, and she knows her base intimately. It’s a base prized by the Republicans, but one that would choose her over the party, even in an election she could not possibly win. She could run on a third-party ticket, or, with the right kind of organization (and God knows how she'd assemble it), in a true, 50-state strategy as an independent. She’d make waves. She could get twenty percent of the vote, perhaps. Maybe twenty-five. Who knows, in a perfect political storm, maybe thirty. But not enough to win.
Certainly enough, however, to establish more political fame and infamy than any woman in American history, regardless of what good or harm it does the government she’s hoping to represent. That, looking at one year's evidence, is what she does best, and it doesn't look like she's going to let John McCain, her family, Alaska or the Republican Party stand in her way.