Since finishing her "book tour" - a term that really had little to do with book selling, in any case - Sarah Palin has found a new line of speaking engagements, as the official rep of "Tea Party, Inc."
And, as usual, she's garnered just what she wanted: publicity. And we're back to hand-wringing, on all sides about her perceived role in politics, and how we should taker her "seriously."
Palin has made a string of appearances in the past few weeks, mainly at "tea party" related functions - which, it should be noted, has become an elastic term meaning, usually, a protest gathering of conserative rank-and-file meant to complain about some Democrat. That, in itself, is a warping of the original "tea party" momentum, which its organizers argued represented widespread grassroots anger at both parties, and especially at the failure of government to listen to average people and their concerns.
Now, of course, it was pretty clear all along that this "broad based, cross-party" line was at best, debatable; but much of what's happened since has indicated a serious approach by many activists to try and reshape the Republican to be more closely aligned with their conservative goals. That's opened up a number of Republican primary races and a general sense that longtime incumbents in the GOP face problems with the base.
Which is where Sarah Palin's curious appearance as the movement's sudden "spokesperson" begins to make some fresh sense.
Palin's other appearance in recent weeks was this past week at a long-planned rally for John McCain. McCain, among other things, is facing an unexpected primary challenge from JD Hayworth, a former Phoenix Congressman who was among the most conservative in the House (and left under a fairly large Abramoff cloud). Hayworth's conservatism is, really, the more natural fit for Tea Party types, something conservatives have been mentioning since he announced.
Palin's appearance, spouting her usual vague exhortations to support the people over those beaurocrats in DC, attacking the "media" for supporting liberals and liberal policies, probably went a long way to marginalize Hayworth and solidify McCain's primary win (meaning a likely easy reelection in the fall), by effectively co-opting tea party rhetoric to her own purposes. This is a reality that wasn't entirely lost on some conservatives, especially those who were fairly lukewarm on Palin's continued presence as a GOP icon since the loss in the 2008 election.
It's something of a myth that Republicans are, largely, thrilled with the energy and passion of tea partiers; the reality is that while Republicans need an energized base, like Democrats, the establishment structure is not especially interested in change or tension. To the extent that "tea party momentum" can be used to drive some Republican wins in otherwise hopeless races, great; to the extent that it reflects internal tensions and removal of already successful candidates and office-holders... the leaders would be fine with getting that squelched.
That's why the result in Texas - where primary voters rejected dozens of tea party candidates and gave GOP incumbents strong majorities - probably point to what's going to happen in the fall: candidates who were already "baked in" to Republican plans (Marco Rubio in Florida, Pat Toomey in PA) can wear the "tea party" mantle easily, while other tea party challenges will be left aside.
And who will tell the tea partiers to celebrate those losses as victories? Well, Sarah Palin, for one.
Nothing so far - and nothing to come, I'll bet - will show any ability on Palin's part to influence an election; even helping McCain, strategically, will not prove Palin has power, only that their odd alliance remains mutually beneficial. What Palin can do, is to knock the wind out of the real energy of tea party types to change the overall makeup of the GOP, by turning the nergy for change into energy for her cult of personality.
In the long run Palin will be no more viable for higher office than she has been, despite continued fascination by some; she remains an intellectual lightweight, incapable of articulating the kind of policy knowledge or proposals that would drive a real Republican route to future success. She's reflective of a larger GOP sense that all they can do, at this point is exploit fear and anger and hope - vaguely - that antipathy to some Obama policies and fear of change will drive substantial election wins.
The problem, of course, is that continue to perpetuate this approach... and you just make it harder and longer to face, down the road, the need to go in a different direction. And that direction has no need for Sarah Palin (it does need people like Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan, who are probably the real losers in Palin's continued celebrity run). And getting Pain off that center stage will never be easy... unless someone's already figured out how she'll implode and is just biding their time.