Attacking Sarah Palin from the Right

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If the former Alaska governor runs, Ronald Reagan's admonition, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" will not survive

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Is Sarah Palin launching a presidential bid? Just trying to gin up publicity one last time before she fades from the scene? Is the Arizona home she just bought actually the first step in a future run for that state's governorship? Did John McCain tip her off that he's eventually going to retire so that she could establish residency and be appointed to his vacant seat by Gov. Jan Brewer?

Or maybe she's just hoping to co-star in the ultimate right-wing reality TV show with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Savvy at times, inexplicably erratic at others, it's impossible to predict if Palin is going to keep earning money as a bi-coastal media elite or enter the GOP primary. Should she run, however, the most interesting aspect of it will be the way she attacks her fellow Republicans, and how they attack her back. She's too feisty to keep Reagan's 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." But neither have we seen the former Alaska governor in a competitive primary with members of her own party. Is the conservative media complex going to have her back or work to undermine her? How will her fans react to it all?

The uncertainty is reason enough for many conservatives to hope that she doesn't run. Useful in firing up the base prior to the 2010 midterms, Palin is now more trouble for them than she's worth. They'd agree with a lot of her rhetoric. She'd go after Mitt Romney on health care, for example. How would he respond? In a 2010 Tonight Show appearance, he suggested Palin was a quitter for abandoning her post in Alaska midway through her term. It's a line of attack he could return to. "If Governor Palin thought her critics didn't play fair in Alaska, just wait until she gets to Washington D.C.," Romney could say. "They're tougher and they play even dirtier. How can we be sure she'll be tough enough to stick it out?"

In the past, Palin has had prominent defenders against zings like that. Should she run, I predict that they won't speak up for her nearly so reliably as before, but it's going to be awkward: her rivals are likely going to raise criticisms conservatives have dismissed previously as unfair attacks by liberals. And it's difficult to imagine Ron Paul or Gary Johnson treating her deferentially during debates.

For another hint at how Palin's treatment by the conservative movement would change, imagine her first candidate interview on Fox News. Perhaps the network would be tougher on her than other contenders to demonstrate that it doesn't give special treatment to past contributors. Or perhaps Palin would be asked easy questions, like, "What kind of stuff do you read?" If she flubs one of those, her instinct is usually to attack the media, but can she get away with that when she's being questioned by Greta Van Susteren instead of Katie Couric? 

Sarah Palin brings out the worst in many Americans. Her supporters indulge in the conceit that they're constantly being insulted by faraway elites, and often care more about aggravating liberals than improving the United States. Some of her critics attack her in ways that are extreme, unseemly, and irrelevant to her role in public life. Likely as not, these corrosive pathologies would play out in the Republican Party as her thin-skinned and impulsive personality led her to lash out against rivals. Having seen the bar lowered, some would sink to her level.

Of course, the infotainment route isn't a sure thing either, as Alyssa Rosenberg points out in this astute post about the forthcoming Palin movie:

On the heels of Atlas Shrugged's inability to earn back its budget, Undefeated is a test case for whether there's a viable Tea Party market that Hollywood can target. Nikki Finke says the movie will end up in between 50 and 100 markets, so it's not just going to be screened for carefully-selected audiences: they're going to try to make some money on this thing. At one point, Palin was a reliable draw--her memoir, Going Rogue, sold at least 2.7 million copies.

But Sarah Palin's Alaska didn't get renewed, and her ratings on Fox haven't been particularly impressive, enough so that the network's declined to pursue future editions of specials she was supposed to host. In other words, the movie is a real gamble for Palin: it may not resurrect her political career, and if it fails, it could end up puncturing her entertainment brand too.
We should be so lucky.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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