It was Tony Perkins who had the fateful pre-Sarah slot on Friday at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference. The Family Research Council president delivered a forgettable speech by any measure, if any in the audience even bothered listening. He was like the warm-up act for the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. He could have unveiled the Unified Theory of Everything or heralded the Second Coming, and nobody would have noticed, because Sarah Palin was next.
The magnitude of the Palin phenomenon is difficult to wrap one's brain around. Did Geraldine Ferraro garner such unfettered enthusiasm and attention two years after her ticket cratered? Obviously, at an event where Republican VIPs paid seven hundred dollars a pop (children under the age of ONE admitted free), she was going to be well received. But it's not just here that Sarah-mania grips crowds. It's at fundraisers. It's at book signings. It's online. And it's pretty obvious that her presence in New Orleans frightened off Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty.
Still, she's not a great speaker. She's rarely eloquent and remains awkward in front of an audience. She's not especially accomplished, though the anticipation she builds prior to every speech would lead one to think she's Charles de Gaulle. Her ideas aren't especially unique or revolutionary. She doesn't propose to uproot the GOP or rewrite the party platform. But she's got the elusive x-factor. She exudes charisma and a well-calibrated folksy charm. To quote Rich Lowry on her star power, "This is a quality that can't be learned; it's either something you have or you don't, and man, she's got it."
There are a great many effective leaders and credible future presidents in both the Republican and Democratic parties. But there are only two rock stars. One lives in the White House. The other lives in Alaska. Before a crowd of nearly four thousand, she wasted no time cutting into the Obama administration. "Now we've got the makings of the Obama Doctrine," she said, "Coddling enemies. Alienating allies." She ridiculed the administration's treatment of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, saying they treated him poorly, "and then acted surprised when he responded in kind." And she joined a common theme of the conference, criticizing the administration's treatment of Benjamin Netanyahu, saying, "Jerusalem is not a settlement and Israel is our friend."
She fired back at the president (who earlier in the day scoffed at her qualifications to participate in the nuclear debate), mocking the "vast nuclear experience he acquired as a community organizer." If President Obama is all nuance, Sarah Palin is blunt force trauma. He is "Yes we can." She is "Don't retreat. Reload." She dissented from Newt Gingrich's earlier call for the GOP to rebrand itself the party of yes, saying, "There is no shame in being the party of no if the other side is proposing an idea that violates our values, violates our conscience, violates our Constitution -- what's wrong with being the party of no?"
Much of her speech was devoted to energy policy, her strong suit in a potential presidential run. She dismissed the president's recent energy speech at Andrews Air Force Base. "The only thing missing was the soundtrack to Top Gun and Joe Biden in a flight suit. Anything sounds good when you say it in front of a fighter jet." Echoing her stump speech line from 2008, she criticized the White House for commissioning more studies on the feasibility of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere, stating, "Let's drill baby drill, not stall baby stall." The crowd leapt to its feet when she said, "There's nothing stopping us from achieving energy independence that a good old fashioned election can't fix." Whether or not she is part of that election is unclear. She made no mention of her plans in 2012. But judging from the reaction of the party faithful present this weekend, it would be foolish to dismiss her out of hand. When she left the stage, much of the audience followed, massing outside for an autograph or a handshake. Few returned. If she wins the SRLC straw poll this weekend, it won't be because she wooed the crowd. It will be because she attracted the crowd in the first place.