Sarah Palin is learning that attention is a depreciating asset. Her latest melodrama revolved around whether she would show up at a Tea Party event in Iowa on Saturday. In the end, she did. Yet that only begged a question: Does anyone, including Republican primary voters, still care?
In 2009, Palin similarly backed in and out of appearances including a keynote address before the annual joint fundraiser of the Republican Senate and House campaign committees. The dysfunction of her brand of politics as performance art was laid embarrassingly bare. The best her defenders could do was blame a staff that Politico characterized as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”
In advance of Saturday’s Tea Party rally in Indianola, Iowa, Palin reverted to form. Yes, she’s coming. No, she’s not. Yes, she will come if organizers provide her with a bucolic setting, bomb-sniffing dogs and two exits. No, on second thought, make that a bale of hay, a bullhorn and a very public dismissal of Christine O’Donnell, the former Republican Senate candidate from Delaware whom Palin had endorsed but now doesn’t want to be seen with.
In the end, the Delaware non-witch got the boot and Palin got her way. What’s left of Palin’s core constituency -- the media -- showed up on a slow news weekend to chronicle her soap opera histrionics, operational anarchy and rock-ribbed narcissism. But it’s hard to keep running on the fumes of old celebrity. Having failed to finish a single term as governor, master any policy issues, or build a competent organization, she is noted largely for the fun stuff -- looking good and appearing on television, both on her travelogue show and within the safe ideological cocoon of Fox News. She cheered her daughter Bristol on “Dancing with the Stars.” She gives lucrative speeches to friendly audiences. She got rich in a Paris Hilton kind of way, and now finds herself ridiculous in much the same vein.
The Palin Factor
That doesn’t mean Palin wouldn’t be a factor in the Republican presidential primary in the unlikely event she entered it. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would like nothing better than for Palin to create a Tea Party brawl on his right. While she wouldn’t win more than a toy in a Cracker Jack box, she could still destabilize the field, creating problems for Texas Governor Rick Perry and veritable conniptions for Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann -- all just as a new poll shows most Republicans have finally grown satisfied with their candidate options.
The Republican candidates will take the stage Sept. 7 for a debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. It’s the kind of klieg-lighted scene that could tempt a Mama Grizzly to come roaring back to center stage. Like big patriotic holidays, the mere mention of Ronald Reagan is bound to make Palin itch for attention.
Yet her travails as a celebrity are nothing compared with what she would face as a candidate. She relies on volunteers, under an umbrella group called Organize4Palin, to organize. She has no paid staff on the ground in the early primary states, and leaned on Tea Party groups to produce her Labor Day weekend events.
During Memorial Day weekend, Palin captivated the cameras by mounting the back of a Harley-Davidson at Rolling Thunder, the annual gathering of bikers in Washington. Her subsequent bus trip up Interstate 95 was remembered mostly for her curious observation that Paul Revere’s midnight ride was a warning to the British, not the American colonists. Yet even her gaffes have a shorter and shorter half-life.
Palin has lost her mojo. She is no longer the singular fixation of the Tea Party, and no longer a candidate who registers high enough in national polls to be taken seriously. She has learned how to run toward a camera, but not how to run for office, and she will be left behind if she tries.
If there is anyone left who wants to wager that Palin will become president, I’ll bet an all-expense-paid trip to Alaska. If she loses, I’ll take a trip to someplace warm.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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