Who's Afraid of Sarah Palin?

The Republican establishment should be. She’s the most volatile force in American politics since Joe McCarthy.

God bless John McCain for having picked Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. McCain didn't simply introduce a new politician into the national limelight, but someone who has already lapped him in public consciousness. Palin represents McCain's most enduring political accomplishment. In tapping her, McCain unleashed the most volatile force into American politics since Joseph McCarthy. And unlike the saturnine McCarthy, Palin seems to succeed effortlessly at playing any role she assumes-in her latest incarnation as author, she produced a best seller even before her tome hit the bookstores, a particularly impressive accomplishment at a moment when the future of the book itself is in doubt.

Can she keep it up? Last night at a party for newly installed Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg, I quickly canvassed dominant liberal opinion. Michael Kinsley doesn't think she can. She's a "flash in the pan." Ronald Brownstein of the Atlantic and National Journal was fascinated that Palin has become the neocon horse, but thinks a Palin presidential candidacy would be political suicide for the GOP in 2012, destroying its chances to pick up lots of Democratic Senate seats because her base of white voters is too small to carry her, let alone the party, to victory.

Maybe so. But one of the more intriguing aspects of Palin's ascent all along has been her alliance with the neocons. It's not hard to see what they get out of it: Midge Decter, writing in the British magazine Standpoint, hailed Palin's commitment to traditional moral values. The neocons have also tended to favor, at least in recent times, politicians that are something of a blank slate. In this regard, Palin, when it comes to foreign policy, is even more of a cipher than George W. Bush ever was. Her mind is about as empty on foreign policy as the yawning airspace surrounding Alaska, whether or not she actually ever saw Russian leader Vladimir Putin jetting about.

There is another thing that unites the neocons and Palin. The Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti has hit pay dirt in latching on to the Palin phenomenon by focusing on the aversion of the media to her. Palin, as Sam Tanenhaus observed to me, represents a hatred of what Irving Kristol dubbed the New Class-the journalists, environmentalists, and government bureaucrats who batten off a prosperous society, while denouncing the free-enterprise system. It's a critique that is proving to have real legs, at least within the GOP.

Speaking of legs, Palin's also looked dynamite on the cover of Newsweek, which she knows, even as she decried the magazine for supposedly focusing on flimflam instead of . . . what? Her carefully crafted policy stands? Her views on global warming? A nuclear disarmament agreement with Russia? The Middle East peace process? But Palin knows that her sex appeal sells. She gets to have it both ways: values and vixen. No wonder Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty and the rest of the potential Republican field for 2012 are worried. If they aren't, they should be.

Palin is not going away. Her book tour is a clever and astute testing of the waters. If the rapturous crowds that have greeted her are any indication, she's plunging into anything but an icy bath.

Her electoral future could come down to the mercurial Levi Johnston, who keeps threatening to reveal some dark secret about the Palin household: "She knows what I got on her." What you got Levi?

That Todd cheated in running the dogsled competition? That Sarah threw a hairbrush at Piper? That she herself had a crush on Levi? It's something that would further dent the image of Palin, revealing her more as a contemporary Becky Sharp than as a virtuous woman.

Or maybe not. The media needs Palin as much as she needs it. And for liberals she provides the perfect figure to loath. So far, the obloquy poured upon her has only boosted her popularity. This, then, is no twilight saga. Instead, Palin and her family are becoming an indispensable part of the American political theater. Go see it. It may be coming to your corner of town as she promotes her book and, incidentally, political future. If I were the Republican establishment, I wouldn't be worried. I'd be quaking.

 

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.