WASHINGTON — When Democrats were looking for evidence of a Republican war on women, they overlooked Exhibit A — Sarah Palin.
This isn’t to say that Palin was part of the war on women, though many Democrats would say so. Rather she was one of the war’s most conspicuous victims — fragged, you might say — by her own troops.
And yet, she’s back again. And — yet again — she’s assuming her default position of presidential tease. Yes, she’s “seriously interested” in running for president. As evidence, she gave an utterly befuddling speech this past weekend in Iowa, where other likely candidates were gathered.
This time, Palin’s critics include Republicans. What the heck was she talking about, they wondered. What has happened to Palin, they ask?
As if they shouldn’t know. Palin, though no longer viable in a national race, may deserve more sympathy than scorn. Her incoherence, though not new, has worsened, and she shows signs of someone desperate for relevance. As to the Iowa speech, though her teleprompter apparently froze, a technological glitch can’t be blamed for “This is to forego a conclusion.”
But blame for her general collapse beginning in 2008 can be placed in large part upon her own party, which used her and cast her aside.
Not that long ago, Palin was a breathtakingly attractive politician of a rare sort. A governor who had challenged Big Oil — and won — she could wow a crowd like few others. Republican strategists desperate for a running mate for John McCain with some razzle-dazzle saw her as the game-changer.
It mattered little that they didn’t know much about her. Whatever she might lack in intellectual heft, they apparently reckoned, she made up for in “hot-ness.” Even McCain, a veteran of so many political wars and campaigns, was fooled by Palin’s charms.
What Republicans didn’t know about Palin, however, did hurt them. Despite her many talents, she was “clearly out of her league,” as I wrote in September 2008, drawing a deluge of hate. What is accepted as conventional wisdom now was, by the way, just as obvious then as now.
Let’s be honest. Any man of Palin’s comparable deficits, no matter his winning ways, would have been eliminated from consideration within minutes of opening his mouth. Although Palin acquitted herself well enough in her single debate with then-Sen. Joe Biden, simultaneously winking at her fans and signaling “You betcha” to her critics, the substance of her responses was flash-card deep.
This doesn’t mean that Palin was incapable of becoming a formidable national politician. It only means that she wasn’t ready. She needed to do what former Texas Gov. Rick Perry has done. Recognizing his mistakes in 2012, Perry has spent the past two years meeting with conservative scholars for briefings on economics, health care, budgets, tax policy and so on.
Palin apparently took a different route. She wrote a couple of books, became fluent in Twitter and dropped in and out of campaigns to endorse tea party candidates. Until Saturday, she seemed content to have become an anointer rather than the anointed. Her seriousness as public servant versus public personality, however, was reflected in her rambling, stream-of-consciousness speech.
If Republican strategists had viewed Palin in 2008 as someone with talent who needed nurturing and support, she might have been ready for a national ticket by 2016. But this possibility exposes the matter of her own judgment. One wonders why Palin would accept the invitation to become McCain’s running mate given how ill-prepared she was, not to mention that she’d just had a baby. Then again, a woman like Sarah, always the brightest star in her orbit, couldn’t resist the roar of the crowd.
What she didn’t count on was the stress of constant travel, performance and cramming for speeches — or the pain of separation from her family. Nor could she have anticipated that her own team ultimately would lose faith in her. Imagine being governor of a frontier state suddenly being placed before millions of armchair critics with fingers on the keyboard ready to fire and asked to perform without proper preparation, training or support. This is crazy-making on its face; devastating and crushing to the individual who finds herself alone on the ledge.
In the end, the story of Palin’s rise and fall is a tragedy. And the author wasn’t the media as accused but the Grand Old Party itself. Like worshipers of false gods throughout human history, Republicans handpicked the fair maiden Sarah and placed her on the altar of political expedience.
They sacrificed her.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.