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Moments that define history are seldom fully understood in the present. Even big events like the attacks of Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or even the release of the iPhone cannot be appreciated for what follows until, well, we see it. Catalyst usually aren’t recognized as such until years later. Significant events produce ripples; seismic ones, aftershocks.
Which is why there’s a fitting tremor in the political firmament this week, a callback to one of those game-changing moments. Her name is Sarah Palin, and the spark was Sen. John McCain.
Fourteen years ago to the month, McCain announced that he was picking Palin, the Governor of Alaska at the time, as his vice presidential running mate, plucking a 44-year-old hockey mom with no real national profile as his understudy for leader of the free world. In doing so, he passed over tested contenders like Govs. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. The reporters traveling with the Democratic ticket of Joe Biden and Barack Obama were caught off guard by the selection, which dropped as we left the Democratic convention in Denver for a rural bus tour through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan. Several of us struggled with the proper pronunciation of her name as we pressed the exhausted campaign high command for spin. Was it PAY-lin? PAL-en?
Stories of that autumn are as abundant as they are manifest. Palin quickly became a force on her own, forgoing McCain’s carefully considered, legacy-eyeing rhetoric. In its place, she threw out allegations that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” and carried into the mainstream the false birtherism idea that Obama was ineligible for the White House because of his birth status. (Fact check: Obama was born in Hawaii and was eligible for the job.) Objectively, Palin was ill-prepared, under-informed, and not particularly interested in getting on the same track as the Straight Talk Express. At times, she wasn’t even in the same station.
Even before Election Day, the McCainiacs had settled on a scapegoat for his lurching campaign, and it was Palin. (They weren’t wrong. One study goes so far as to estimate she cost McCain more than 2 million votes.)
Not ones to flinch, Palin loyalists perhaps understood that the longer view would look different. They may have lost the vice presidency and McCain’s respect, but they had reshaped American politics, a generational shift that would culminate in Donald Trump’s ascent.
Palin returned to Alaska and her day job as Governor, at least for a while. She was seen as perhaps her party’s next nominee for President, given her ability to fire up crowds, and stoke anti-Obama sentiment at the high levels that the Republican Party desperately sought.
With that attention, though, drew scrutiny. The national eyes that landed on her in August of 2008 didn’t leave in November of that year. What was her record as Governor? How real were those curious anecdotes about nepotism and side deals that seemed to show up from time to time that fall? And while the press—and Democrats—were at it, maybe they could figure out her actual beliefs this time before she made a play for the top of the ticket.
Palin and her advisers looked around Juneau and made the cold—but probably correct—call that there was only downside to finishing her first term as governor. The legal bills and open-records requests just kept piling up. On July 4 weekend of 2009, she abruptly announced she was stepping down, but not out of the spotlight. Her work was done, and she set out to settle her score with McCain’s campaign—and the GOP itself—in a tell-all memoir. She had already changed politics, making the mean subsoil the new top layer, bending facts and deploying innuendo to serve her agenda, and supercharging George W. Bush’s faux contempt for academia into a graduate course of proud ignorance.
That new footing for the Republican Party drove it to a Tea Party-fueled majority in 2010, one that bedeviled Obama and his next six years. At one point, she was seen as a favorite to challenge Obama, leading reporters on a bewildering cat-and-mouse chase that looked a whole lot like a campaign test drive with a super-secret schedule meant just to spite journalists. She even made a pilgrimage to Trump Tower for a lunch of New York pizza.
Palin ultimately didn’t get into the 2012 race, but her base also never really warmed to Romney as the nominee, either. Palin’s reverberations in turn made Trump’s candidacy, nomination, and victory possible. Palin and her brand of brash Know Nothingism redefined the Republican Party. Pugilism was now a sufficient stand-in for policy, Twitter trolling a substitute for truth, populism a proxy for pragmatism.
It’s little wonder Trump found such a foothold in the party after Palin had spent the previous half-decade hacking limbs of long-held orthodoxy from it. Palin had created the path to power, even if she had none herself. Civility was for suckers, and the masses liked the products celebrity candidates like Trump and Palin were slinging.
So, why revisit McCain’s choice that redirected the fate of his party? Because Palin is trying to make her political comeback. Alaskans on Tuesday used a complicated ranked-voting system to decide who will fill the balance of the late Rep. Don Young’s current term in the House. They also ranked their preferred candidates in a primary roster for who will serve in the 118th Congress that convenes in January. The results of the former were still unclear Wednesday morning, but Palin was on track to be on the November ballot for the latter. Alaska remains a conservative state, but many have a tough time shaking the feeling that Palin had her shot, walked away, and happily parlayed it into celebrity.
Still, that Palin could find political redemption serves as something of a warning for D.C., given her history of showing loyalty to no party, players, or platform. Mainstream Republicans who grouse about the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Boehbert would do well to brace for Palin once again becoming a power player in the Republican Party. After all, Palin has already remade politics once, and she may have her eyes on far more than Alaska’s desk in the House chamber.
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