Palin: From failed candidate to political star

Image: Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin has a large block of Americans waiting eagerly for her next pronouncement.Al Grillo / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sarah Palin has converted a failed run for the vice presidency into a job, more or less, as a driving force for American ultraconservatism and its manifestation in the nationwide tea party movement.

It was not surprising that she managed to convert her celebrity into a financial gold mine. Americans pay well for celebrities' books and public appearances.

But it has been rare for a vice presidential candidate — particularly one snatched from the relative obscurity of the governor's mansion in a politically sidelined state such as Alaska — to convert a rocky, uneven campaign performance into a position of national political power.

Palin did, however, and has a large block of Americans waiting eagerly for her next pronouncement.

For example, within minutes of President Barack Obama's speech about the economy to the AFL-CIO, the country's largest labor federation, Palin was on Twitter with the following message:

"SarahPalinUSA Obama's Blame Game (at) AFLCIO today: predictable/tiring/ineffective/hypocritical, as he pushed&voted 4 fiscal irresponsibility while in Congress".

That's the kind of political "red meat" that reaches deeply into the psyche of American conservatives, tea partiers in particular, who view Obama as a big government liberal who is willy-nilly running up the already enormous U.S. debt.

"Palin works on catch phrases, not position papers, and that's partly because she lacks experience and partly on purpose," said John Baick, associate professor of history at Western New England College in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Other than preaching small government and low taxes, the tea party movement has carefully avoided developing a national political platform with specific prescriptions for what ails the country.

"She's as amorphous as the tea party," said Baick. "Even so, the more she serves as a lightning rod for attacks from the left, the more the Republicans like her."

True, says Denise Cattoni, Illinois state coordinator for the that calls itself Tea Party Patriots organization.

"The left is obsessed with her. For that part of it, I'm glad," Cattoni said. "However we can get the word out there, 'Hey, we're good people,' is fine with me."

Many in the movement speak of Palin's role as a strong woman whom they see as having overcome a difficult background and dismissal by the political elite.

"She's great. She's had to struggle. She's a woman who's seen her family attacked; she's dealing with a special needs child. She rose above all that," said Diana Reimer of the Philadelphia Tea Party Patriots.

While many Americans expect Palin to run as the Republican candidate for president in 2012, she contends her focus is on putting more Republicans into office in the November elections.

Through the primary election season leading up to congressional elections in November, balloting that may deny Democrats their comfortable majorities in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, Palin has crisscrossed the country campaigning for tea partiers or issuing long-distance endorsements.

The result has been mixed for the candidates she has backed, but each engagement has won her still more national attention.

As Sen. John McCain's running mate in 2008, Palin famously aligned herself with so-called hockey moms, mothers who are deeply invested in the sporting activities of their children, declaring that the only difference between such a mother and a pit bull was lipstick.

She now has moved on to associating herself with "mama grizzlies," yet another metaphor for a protective and, when provoked, dangerous animal. She chose the American grizzly bear also because of its relationship with her state, Alaska.

While that kind of talk draws cheers and praise from her followers, Palin has proved herself to be a polarizing figure in a country riven by partisanship that seems to grow daily through the Obama presidency.

The most recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 52 percent of those surveyed viewed her unfavorably while 45 percent held a positive view.

Palin's detractors say she lacks experience, noting that her public service is limited to being mayor of a small Alaska town and having served half her term as the state's governor. She resigned that job as she set off on her current course to become a political celebrity.

Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, said he did not see Palin's rise as "novel at all" in a country "where people are famous only for being famous."

In her current role, Wilson said, she "has no requirement to know things. Should there be such a requirement? That's a different story."

Palin has a huge and adoring following, a regular spot on conservative Fox television and political clout that would seem to reach well beyond her resume.

No matter, says Wilson:

"Folks play the 'inexperience' card when they don't like the person involved and play the 'new blood' or 'outsider' card when they do."