By Howard Fineman
I have covered politics for a long time. I can tell when someone is running for president. Sarah Palin is running for president.
On a sunny (slow news) day in Wasilla, Alaska, the governor and former GOP vice presidential candidate appeared before the cameras and announced that she was stepping down as the state's chief executive 18 months before her term expires.
Just like that — like the distant sound of a chain saw in a stand of northern pines — the 2012 Republican race lurched into gear.
Palin is not the front-runner — there IS no front-runner — but she potentially is a major player in the Republican contest, her disastrous turn as John McCain’s running mate notwithstanding.
Why now? Why this minute? Well, perhaps there is scandal lurking in the Great North that we in the Lower 48 don’t know about. Maybe there is video of the Palin family setting a polar bear adrift on ice floes. But there is no reason to suspect so and, in the meantime, it’s worth noting that both the timing and the manner of Palin’s announcement were pretty shrewd.
She picked a long holiday weekend at the onset of summer (when, by the way, "Meet the Press" is pre-empted by Wimbledon tennis) to issue her stunner. She took no questions after her announcement and then disappeared into her house. As a result, she controlled the message, which was:
I’m the scrappy “point guard” (her basketball position on a state-champion team long ago) and I’m gonna take it to the hoop of freedom for ya!
Now she will be free to travel the country, rake in a lot of dough as a speaker, work the GOP and conservative dinner circuit, hawk her book once it comes out — and see how the game develops.
No rocket scientist
Now: a trawler-full of caveats.
Scrappy though she is, Palin is no rocket scientist. Her knowledge of the issues and of the wider world remains shallow and incomplete. In some respects, her family life is a monument to confusion, if not hypocrisy, about Traditional Family Values. The cutesy-pie thing is fading fast, and isn’t the route (as Tina Fey proved) to Margaret Thatcher-hood. Her performance on the national campaign trail (after the first scripted moments in St. Paul) was, for the most part, not only laughable, but also cringe-worthy. She was in over her head.
She is popular with core Republicans and conservatives for her emotional approach to abortion, for her Alaskan devotion to guns and hunting, and for her libertarianish theory of government whose last true devotee was Barry Goldwater.
Palin comes from the core of the core GOP demographic: rural, Protestant, married and churchgoing. She is in THAT mainstream.
Some of her potential rivals are just as busy making fools of themselves as she ever was during the 2008 campaign. At least she hasn’t been caught doing the tango in Buenos Aires (Mark Sanford), or having sex with a staffer (John Ensign) or calling Supreme Court noiminee Sonia Sotomayor a “racist” (Newt Gingrich) or disappearing to an ambassadorship in China (Jon Huntsman).
Early polls show that none of the other men left standing — Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, to name two — is exactly a colossus. To be blunt, the GOP is in such a shambles that in that land of the blind, even this one-eyed woman could become queen.
And as simplistic as she is, her reductionist view of the role of the federal government could be appealing to a GOP grassroots that is already apoplectic about the aggrandizements of the Obama administration in health care, environmental control, education and other aspects of our lives.
Expectations are on her side. Essentially, there are none; at least among the media elites she already has, in Nixonian fashion, made her foil. She may not have a Phi Beta Kappa key, but she knows how to play a victim of the people who do — and that is popular among the conservatives she now courts.
Finally, there is that scrappy thing. She genuinely was a good — and tough — point guard. And in an Alaska bar fight, I would bet on her any day against the boys who leaked bad stuff about her anonymously to Todd Purdum of Vanity Fair.
They didn’t have the class or the guts to attack her on the record as they frantically tried to blame her for their own horrendous judgment in picking her as McCain’s running mate.
She wasn’t ready then. She may never be. But at least she’s still in the game. Those guys are finished, we all can hope.