Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, March 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
In January 2009, Sarah Palin had the world on a string. As a potential Republican presidential field-clearer, every sentence she uttered was news. A Fox News contract awaited her. So did book deals.
Four years later, Palin is without a clear option for elected office — or a clear sense she has an interest in any position of real public influence. She never took an active, leadership role in the Tea Party movement, beyond showing up at a scattered handful of events and talking it up on television. For many Americans, her name is now primarily a punch line, and if she is envisioning a comeback, it may simply be too late.
Once as polarizing as a 1990s-era Hillary Clinton, she can still rouse the conservative base and create headline ripples and has instincts for picking candidates in a primary battle that other Republicans follow. She is getting the most speaking time at this weekend’s CPAC at the Gaylord National hotel in Maryland, and her speech is among the most anticipated.
But as a force within the party, Palin has gone from 60 to zero within the span of a single presidential cycle.
“There was a ton of potential there, and it’s conceivable that there could be a second act, but it’s a little hard to see it now,” said Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol, who championed Palin as a potential vice presidential pick in 2008 for Sen. John McCain.
“She didn’t run, obviously, in 2012, and she hasn’t really made herself a leader on any particular issue,” added Kristol, arguing that one either needs to hold office or be relevant on an issues front. “Usually you have to do one of those things ... otherwise you’re just another pundit.”
Several Republicans privately said they’d grown weary of the lather, rinse, repeat by which Palin makes an appearance, creates a mystique, then disappears.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer argued she has as much of a chance of a second act as Joe Biden managed after being “laughed out of the race” in 1988 amid a plagiarism scandal.
However, he added, “Her act as a celebrity is done. Her act as a political figure is possible — if she applies herself.”
Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s campaign, and, more recently, the presidential bid of another woman who was a favorite of the base — Michele Bachmann — said plainly: “Her moment in the sun ... has gone.”
“Being a talking head ... was not something that sustained her as a viable candidate,” he said. “She’s a personality in the same way the Kardashian family is.”
Palin’s downward trajectory is almost in direct proportion to her rise after the 2008 cycle.
She was the part of the John McCain ticket that had endurance — or seemed to — as she tapped into a populist sentiment within the Republican base before the rise of the Tea Party. Political pros on both sides might have mocked Palin, but they also readily acknowledged her raw but undeniable talent.
Her unvarnished, “mama grizzly” cred and unapologetic chastising of the liberal establishment helped vault her to a leadership role, albeit an unofficial one.
Her endorsement was not only seen as a golden seal of approval within Republican primary politics, but she was a major boost in fundraising for candidates. She was crucial in helping get South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte elected in 2010.
Yet, even those who were beneficiaries of her political swat concede her only real role now is playing in primaries.
“I think she still has an ability to ignite activists, and I also think that she is someone who is relatively young. I’m sure it’s not the last that we’ve heard of her,” Ayotte told Politico.
McCain, who has maintained nothing but kind words about Palin, said, “I’m sure there are many candidates who I know request her to campaign for them.”
Still, Palin’s own endorsement process was — and remained — opaque at best and haphazard at worst. To wit, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad learned, almost as an aside from an aide, that she had endorsed him shortly before the Republican primary in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.
Other candidates learned from her Facebook page that she was backing them, a method that added to her mystique but ultimately made discerning a pattern somewhat difficult. She understood how to use social media, but it became her main outlet.
She stumbled into negative headlines with a website featuring the crosshairs of a rifle to target members of Congress in 2010, a few months before the near-fatal shooting of then-Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. She decried the attacks against her as “blood libel” and offended Jews in the process. (A Palin aide did not respond to an email about this story).
In the meantime, her political circle shrank — with key members of the McCain 2008 effort who had taken her side in an internal fight drifting away.
The march of time has not helped her — Tea Party candidates elected to the House and Senate in the 2010 wave are now the faces of change for a Republican Party in the midst of another soul-searching session.
“Unlike a few years ago when she was the new, fresh face, we are seeing a crop of even newer, fresher faces in the party — from Rubio and Cruz to Martinez and Haley,” Bachmann Deputy Campaign Manager David Polyansky said.
“It will take more work on her part to elbow back into that leadership space,” he said. “But since so many in the party have such strong sentiment toward her (in both directions), she is one of the unusual figures that can still find a seat at the head table whether that is in a kingmaker or more individualistic capacity.”
Steve Bannon, the filmmaker and Breitbart News chairman who made a movie about Palin called “Undefeated” that debuted in Iowa, disagreed with the notion that she has lost any standing.
“I don’t think her standing’s ever wavered,” he said. “People hang on her words. ... I think she’s thinking a lot of things and I’m sure she has a lot of plans, and I think there are going to be initiatives.
“I’m sure she’s doing this for a reason, and I’m sure she’s going to be quite a force in 2014.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested she still has “a significant base.”
But he added, “I think that Gov. Palin has to decide what her future is. She could run for the U.S. Senate. She could sustain national impact, but the question is does she want to do that, and if so, to what end?”
That said, Gingrich said, Palin did things her own way, defying the Washington “patterns” by which officials get defined.
“I don’t think she thought those were her patterns,” he said. “I don’t think they worried her one bit.”
Still, there are certain constants in politics — and in the era of new media and the one-hour news cycle, people have to fight harder to stay relevant. Whether she is bracing for such a fight remains unclear.
“I think it was smart of CPAC to invite her, and I think it was even smarter for her to come,” said Faith and Freedom Coalition head Ralph Reed, “because it’s a statement that she wants to play a role in the future even if it is as yet undetermined.”