Sarah Palin, who is in town this week to flog her latest book, no longer has the ability to overshadow the Republican presidential field. But while everybody’s favorite former Alaska governor may have flamed out as a national political candidate, she succeeded in catalyzing a movement that may well become known “Trumpism.”
“A lot of the forces we see coalescing around Donald Trump were the people we saw at Sarah Palin rallies in 2008,” said David Axelrod, a CNN political commentator and architect of Barack Obama’s political rise. I bumped into Axelrod on Monday in a restaurant on the Strip, where Palin was being interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper. Axelrod and Palin may seem like odd bedfellows, but both are parents of special-needs children, he said, “and those things transcend political lines.”
Seven years ago, said Axelrod, Palin inspired a voting bloc that seems to be flocking to Trump.
“He has a similar appeal to her because he is an anti-establishment voice and very much speaks for alienated, non-college educated, white voters who have been left out of this economy and feel their voices aren’t heard in Washington,” Axelrod said. “Having observed the 2008 election and what’s happened since, you’d have to say a lot of things began with her.”
Even though she does not appear to have any interest in running for office again, Palin has a knack for inserting herself into politics when she stands to benefit most. She’s got a new book to sell – “Sweet Freedom,” a Christian devotional that weaves scripture with her politics and personal life.
A lot of the forces we see coalescing around Donald Trump were the people we saw at Sarah Palin rallies in 2008. You’d have to say a lot of things began with her.
She no longer has the bully pulpit of the Fox News Channel, which did not renew her commentator contract this year. Normally absent from events like a presidential debate, where she is not the featured draw, she said on her Facebook page Tuesday that she plans to attend the GOP debate. Showing up where the cameras are is a shrewd move for an author on a book tour.
It could even goose contributions to SarahPAC, her political action committee, which has seen a dramatic fall off in donations in the last year. (SarahPAC raised nearly $6 million in 2010, according to federal filings. This cycle it has raised less than half a million so far.)
On Sunday, Palin also got a microburst of attention when she revealed on the Breitbart website that she has a “political crush” on French politician Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a member of the ultra-right wing National Front and heir apparent to France’s most xenophobic political family.
The Le Pens, whose party was soundly defeated in a second round of voting in French regional elections this week, have called for an end to Muslim immigration to France, and for full Muslim assimilation. Palin, who supports Trump’s call for a temporary halt to Muslim immigration, has approvingly compared Marechal-Le Pen to the billionaire reality star, and also to another of her favorites, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
“Call it the rise of the populists,” she wrote at Breitbart.com. “All are non-establishment candidates taking on corrupt, entrenched, and detached political elites who are more interested in preserving their own power than defending their countries.”
On Monday evening, Palin and Tapper chatted about the presidential race, her failed 2008 run as John McCain’s running mate and her daughter Bristol’s second out-of-wedlock pregnancy. (“Less than ideal circumstances,” noted Palin.)
Tapper asked her how she could support a ban on Muslim immigration into the U.S. when even former Vice President Dick Cheney has said Trump’s proposal goes against the deeply embedded American principle of religious liberty.
“No,” she replied. “Trump was trying to finish the conversation that would lead to … a pause on immigration in general. I think that’s where he was going. ‘Stop it, wait, we’ve got to get a handle on this.’ It’s so irresponsible, a deadly move on the part of the U.S. government to continue to do what we are doing today and not filtering out those who come to America to do us harm.”
During their chat, Palin, 51, who wore American flag cowboy boots, was funny and relaxed. She was a little bit snarky, and only briefly indulged in the kind of score-settling that has become something of a trademark for her.
“When McCain picked you in 2008,” said Tapper, “he noted you were the most popular governor in the United States, and you know after you became the vice presidential nominee, your reputation was dragged through the mud. Why do you think your name was dragged through the mud?”
Palin blamed “the liberal media” which was “able to make a narrative about me that was full of deception.”
She also blamed McCain’s staff, with whom she exchanged rancorous post-election recriminations, for failing to lay the proper groundwork for her sudden fame.
“That taught me a lesson about how vapid the media can be when you don’t have people around you to defend you,” she said. “That’s something a campaign should be equipped to do, is properly introduce a candidate and not let the media create the narrative.”
“Not if they’re smart,” she said. “It’s not always helpful to have my endorsement. But maybe it brings a curiosity factor.” (She added, however, that “a couple of ‘em” have asked.)
“I am not going to pick one right now,” she said. “But what a nice problem to have if it came down to Cruz or Trump. They are both strong and very decisive and someone who would take the initiative.”
As for why Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and the only woman seeking the GOP nomination, has not captured the imagination of voters, Palin was blunt.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with gender,” Palin replied. “Some candidates are able to resonate and connect, and I don’t know what it is, to be perfectly honest, just something missing there.”
If the 2008 campaign had ended differently, said Tapper, “right now a Vice President Palin would be preparing to run for president.”
“And instead I’m here!” she said, with a big smile, though she has written that the loss was devastating.
Axelrod delivered the news to his boss, who was surprised. “He asked me, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘A woman, change, all that.’ And he said, ‘You know it took me six months to become a good candidate. We’ll see what happens with her in three or four weeks.’”
Four weeks later, Axelrod said, Palin had a damaging interview with Katie Couric, in which she seemed ill prepared and defensive when asked about things as trivial as her reading habits.
After the 2008 campaign, she returned to Alaska and retired as governor a little more than halfway through her first term. She has never sought public office again.
“She has a following and doesn’t have the headaches that go along with running for office,” Axelrod said. “I am sure she sells a lot of books and gets paid a lot to speak. Turns out that being herself is a pretty good gig.”
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