What Sarah Palin meant

January 28, 2013

The news that Fox News Channel has decided against renewing Sarah Palin's contract means that the former Alaska governor's time in the national spotlight is, at least for the moment, over.

In truth, Palin had largely disappeared from the political conversation once it became clear she wouldn't be running for president in 2012. But, now that she is officially gone -- without the Fox News platform or an elected office, it's hard to see how she continues to get attention -- it's worth revisiting (or maybe visiting) what she meant to the political world.

Let's start with this basic, unassailable fact: From the moment she was picked to be John McCain's running mate in 2008, Palin came to dominate the political/media culture like few politicians before or after her have done.

Palin was that rare politician about whom there was no gray area in terms of how people regarded her. If you loved her, you LOVED her. And if you hated her, well, you HATED her.  That division of opinion made Palin perhaps the single most compelling Republican politician over these past four years. In many ways, Palin had as much in common with a celebrity as she did a politician. ( We once dubbed her a "celebritician" for that very reason.) She was the political version of Kanye West: you didn't have to like her to wonder what she was going to do next.

Palin's initial appeal was built on her "everywoman" story: mother of five, including a baby with Down's Syndrome, wife to a snowmobile racing champion, reformer-mayor-turned-governor.

We still remember sitting down with Palin in the spring of 2008 in Washington at the National Governors Association conference. (It turns out that was when John McCain first met her, too.)

The Palin in that interview was candid, self-effacing and charismatic. And that was the Palin who spent the first few weeks as a candidate largely impressing both the McCain campaign and the Republican base. Remember that she was massively outdrawing McCain on the stump for much of the final few months of the campaign.

Then something changed. It's impossible to trace what began the transformation in Palin but it's a fair guess to say that her interview with Katie Couric was the spark. Palin seemed to be either over- or under-briefed for the interview and came off as standoffish and, worse, not up to the job for which she was running.

In the wake of that interview, Palin had a choice: Would she acknowledge she was off her game and try to reboot with another (or several other) major network interviews or would she bunker in, insisting the fault lied with a "gotcha" media?

We all know the path she took. Palin leaned hard into her "lamestream media" attack and began turning on everyone, including the man who had vaulted her to the national stage. In the process, she somehow lost the mantle of reformer that made her so attractive to many voters in the first place. She embraced a sort of anti-intellectualism in which her lack of knowledge about foreign affairs was unimportant since it was a test put into place by a media who wanted to destroy her.

Palin, in short, began to believe everything that her most ardent supporters thought about her. (It's dangerous for any politician to believe what your biggest fan thinks of you; you need to appeal to voters who are not your biggest fans, and even to some of your enemies, to win elections.)

She became bigger than politics -- in her own mind -- and began to focus much more on the celebrity side of her persona (the various reality shows, her daughter, Bristol, on "Dancing with the Stars") than on the political end. Stories of her refusing to confirm or canceling her involvement in party events became legion. Eventually, GOP fundraisers stopped asking Palin to be involved because the bang they got from her name being on an invite didn't make up for the chaos she and her entourage guaranteed.

The net effect was that Palin's support got deeper -- those people who loved Palin wound up loving her even more -- but it also narrowed significantly. She became the nichest of niche politicians -- someone whose support was a mile deep and an inch wide.

And so, by the time she had to make up her mind about whether to run for president in 2012, the decision was, in many ways, already made for her. Had she run, she would have been a sideshow, not a central player. She seemed to sense that and stayed out.

The Palin story is, in the end, one of tremendous talent misused. Like any number of playground greats who never make the NBA or, when they do, wind up disappointing, Palin had as much natural ability as anyone this side of Barack Obama or John Edwards, but was unable to translate that talent into results once the bright lights came on. That she never made good on her remarkable natural talents is a sign of how the political process can chew up and spit out those who aren't ready for it.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Aaron Blake · January 28, 2013