Opinion

The end of Sarah Palin

She is purely an Obama-era novelty. As Obama's tenure ends, so does the career of Sarah Barracuda.

After this weekend, it's probably safe to say that Sarah Palin is done. Like Jesse Ventura or Ross Perot, she may show up every once in a while to hurl red meat or use stunt cameos to remind us a little of her awkward charms. But recent events seem to confirm that she is an Obama-era novelty politician — and not much else.

First she gave a speech to the NRA in which she joked that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists, offending people who otherwise make up her base. Next, Robert Costa reported on the ever-smaller crowds that have been greeting Palin in Iowa.

When Palin took the stage at the Hy-Vee Conference Center under a banner that read "Heels On, Gloves Off" on Sunday at an event for Senate candidate Joni Ernst, the ballroom was half-full, with a couple hundred attendees scattered in clumps. [Washington Post]

If the politically engaged seem bored with Obama, they have all but forgotten Sarah Barracuda, the manqué of anti-Obama populism. After years of halting appearances on Fox News, gaffes about Russia, and a parody by Tina Fey that nearly eclipsed the original, it may be hard to remember the whirlwind national introduction to Sarah Palin, which culminated in her galvanic speech to the Republican National Convention in 2008. Sarah Palin wasn't a joke back then — she was a live threat. In a few days, with the help of an ace stylist, an ace speechwriter, and sheer novelty, Sarah Palin almost transformed that election.

It later became a reason to knock Palin's vanity and ambition, but Lisa Kline's work as a stylist gave Palin a frontier glamor — that red leather jacket, the military-cut coats — that put starbursts in commentator's eyes. She was an idealized image of a hockey-mom governor from the endless Alaskan wild. Obama was new, but cool and aloof. Sarah seemed relatable and engaging.

Until the introduction of Sarah Palin, the 2008 election had been almost entirely framed as one of "change" vs. "experience." But speechwriter Matthew Scully must have discerned a kind of frontier populism in her accent, history, and politics, and wrote a convention speech that gave the election a completely different cast.

Here's how CNN summed up the speech:

She slammed Obama for "saying one thing in Scranton and another in San Francisco," argued that he had written two memoirs but never authored a major piece of legislation, and asked what he would do "when those Styrofoam Greek columns are hauled back to some studio lot," a reference to the stage where Obama gave his acceptance speech last week. [CNN]

My personal favorite line was this: "The American presidency is not supposed to be a journey of 'personal discovery.'" You could almost hear that punch landing.

Palin gave what many in the Republican base had been craving all along. It was no longer McCain's long résumé against Obama's promise of change — it was a more primal election of "us" versus "them." She humblebragged, "I'm not a member of the permanent political establishment.... I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion."

And there on that convention stage we saw a preview of the "summer of rage" over Obama's health-care reform and the Tea Party rebellion of 2010.

For Republicans in 2008, alas, it became apparent that the McGovern presidential coalition had waxed in the past 40 years, while the Nixon coalition had waned. And for Palin, it's basically been all downhill since the convention: Saturday Night Live, a disaster interview with Katie Couric, an election loss, a boring reality television show, a number of her endorsed candidates flaming out, a clash with Roger Ailes, and one too many appearances on Fox News in which she seemed on populist autopilot or totally anodyne.

My theory is that Palin will have trouble finding a niche in the post-Obama world. She was the right minoritarian foil for the White House. The president is a brainy, cool-tempered, wonkish Hawaiian; he is a bit like the man from nowhere. Palin was slashing, heated, and defiantly Alaskan.

As his administration comes up more and more lame, what role will Palin play? Maybe none at all. The Obama-Palin dynamic may go down as a Pacific Ocean holiday from the Clinton-Bush rivalry that is the natural embodiment of our two-party, two-family American political system.

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