This column contained a garbled quotation from Fox News's transcript of Sean Hannity's interview with Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The governor's correct quote was: "A lot of this is wrapped in good rhetoric, but we're not seeing those actions, and this many months into the new administration, quite disappointed, quite frustrated with not seeing those actions to rein in spending, slow down the growth of government. Instead, Sean, it's the complete opposite. It's expanding at such a large degree that if Americans are paying attention, unfortunately, our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our countries had in mind for us."
The Take: Palin Sideshow Highlights Cracks in the GOP
It's a measure of the Republican Party's problems that its members managed to turn their biggest fundraising event this year into a circus highlighting their own differences. The question of whether Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would show up eclipsed virtually anything said about President Obama or the party's vision.
Message Management 101 would suggest that there are more effective ways for the party to deal with its problems. But on Monday night, when the spotlight was on the Republicans, rather than the president, the GOP allowed lowbrow chatter about Palin's attendance, rather than something more substantive, to dominate.
Palin bears considerable responsibility for what transpired. She was initially announced by the host committees as the keynoter for the evening, only to have her staff declare that the announcement was premature. Her initial handling of the dinner invitation left party leaders and GOP operatives with the impression that, however popular she may be with the conservative base, she wasn't particularly reliable as a party leader.
In frustration, party officials then turned to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to deliver the keynote address. Palin would not be attending. That's where things stood until the last few days. What transpired then was farce -- an on-again, off-again, would-she-or-wouldn't-she charade that ultimately resulted in her attending the dinner but not speaking. She became both a center of attention and a significant distraction. Party officials bear as much responsibility as Palin for that.
Palin wasn't shut out entirely. Republicans watching from home were able to catch Palin on Fox News Channel, chatting amiably on tape with Sean Hannity, as the GOP contributors were finishing their dinner at the Washington Convention Center.
Palin claimed the United States is heading toward socialism under Obama, talked about her fight with the Alaska legislature over whether to reject some federal stimulus money and declined to say what her plans might be about running for reelection in 2010 or president in 2012. Her conclusion about the 2008 campaign: "We told ya so."
"Is this even more than you thought was going to be in terms of where the president would take the economy?" Hannity asked.
Palin responded with an answer that was difficult to parse.
"A lot of this is wrapped in good rhetoric," she said, "but we're not seeing those actions, and this many months into the new administration, quite disappointed, quite frustrated with not seeing those actions to rein in spending, slow down the growth of government. Instead, China's the complete opposite. It's expanding at such a large degree that if Americans are paying attention, unfortunately, our country could evolve into something that we do not even recognize, certainly that is so far from what the founders of our countries had in mind for us."
Palin's cameo on Fox was long completed by the time Gingrich began his keynote address at the party dinner on Monday. By the time he finished, it's doubtful many who weren't in the room were still watching on C-SPAN. They missed a classic Gingrich performance.
Gingrich spoke from notes, not a text, and his speech lasted nearly an hour. The speech was a meaty defense of conservative principles and a sharply etched attack on the policies of the new administration, a "World According to Gingrich" that was part history lesson, part polemic and part pragmatic political appeal to his party.
He began by trying to bridge the differences between those Republicans who prefer a smaller, purer, more conservative party and those who say the party's only hope is to expand its appeal and attract moderates and independents.