It’s never easy to extricate yourself from a fling that got way too serious. But that’s exactly what many conservatives are trying to do after a few heady years of Sarah Palin infatuation. In the wake of Palin’s deeply unserious reality TV show and her embarrassing “blood libel” video, the bloom’s worn off the rose, rather definitively. In fact, those incidents may have provided just the convenient excuses the GOP establishment was looking for.
Now, with the 2012 election looming, Palin’s former backers are fleeing left and right. The following is a closer look at the Republican bigwigs who have fallen out of love with her: Some are former cheerleaders who’ve done a 180-degree turn, some are critics who once held their tongues but are now emboldened to oppose her, and—perhaps worst of all—many are her onetime biggest fans, who have taken to damning her with conspicuously faint praise.
MUGGED BY REALITY
Douthat, who now carries the banner for social conservatism on the New York Times op-ed page, has been a longtime Palin booster. In 2008, he wrote that she truly had the “potential to embody the kind of change the GOP desperately needs.” But now he’s looking for something else, writing that, “[h]er public rhetoric, from ‘death panels’ to ‘blood libel,’ is obviously crafted to maximize coverage and controversy, and generate more heat than light. And her Twitter account reads like a constant plea for the most superficial sort of media attention.”
Even more opposed is Jennifer Rubin, the former Commentary writer who recently became a blogger for the Washington Post. Back in 2010, she was one of Palin’s most energetic defenders, as evidenced by a 3,860-word piece she wrote called “Why Jews Hate Palin,” in which she wrote that Palin “was on the receiving end of class animosity from elite media and opinion makers who had never before really been asked to accept the notion that someone outside their socio-economic circles could be qualified for the nation’s highest office.” Now Rubin has joined the critics: She told me bluntly that Palin’s choice to become a political pop star and to “play the victim” was hers to make, but she forfeited the right to be taken seriously as a presidential candidate. “Aside from people who are devoted fans, I have yet to find a single GOP officeholder or top-flight consultant who thinks that she should be a viable presidential candidate. It was not the same thing six months ago,” Rubin explained. "Some people have potential and don't come through.”
It’s also become safer for longtime Palin dissenters to come out of the closet with their feelings about her. In 2008, Peggy Noonan was caught saying, over a mic she didn’t realize was live, that choosing Palin as VP was “political bullshit.” She swiftly penned a WSJ mea culpa, cooing that “I do like Mrs. Palin, because I like the things she espouses. And because, frankly, I met her once and liked her.” She’s since dropped that pose with a vengeance; in a recent column, Noonan called Palin a “nincompoop.”
Sarah Palin’s potential primary opponents also smell blood. When John McCain passed over Tim Pawlenty for the vice presidential nomination in 2008, Pawlenty took it on the chin and declared that “Governor Palin is an outstanding, terrific pick for vice president.” Now, he’s not-so-subtly implying that she’s more famous than serious, telling the Washington Post that, “with the possible exception of Mike Huckabee and Palin, there aren't exactly a bunch of Lady Gagas” in the Republican field.
Rick Santorum, who is also considering a 2012 run, once declared Palin a “dynamic new leader” and praised the sincerity of her choice to raise a child with Down syndrome. But now he’s changed his mind about both her leadership potential and her family values. Questioned about her fitness for office in a recent interview with National Journal, Santorum offered, witheringly, “What does it mean to be qualified to be president? She is born in this country and she’s the right age. Those are the qualifications.” And then, when she declined an invitation to give the keynote speech at CPAC, he went further: "I have a feeling she has some demands on her time. And a lot of them have financial benefit attached to them, uh, so I'm sure that she's doing what's best for her and her family. I wouldn't have turned it down, but … I'm not the mother to all these kids.”
FRIENDS WHO DON’T CALL ANYMORE
The Weekly Standard
The neoconservative Weekly Standard arguably did more to create Sarah Palin as a national force than anyone besides John McCain. She benefited from a crucial 2007 profile by Fred Barnes; relentless hype by editor Bill Kristol; and a fawning post-election biography penned by staffer Matthew Continetti. But these days, the publication is noticeably cooler on the sage of Wasilla.
In late 2010, for example, Kristol went on Fox News to posit that she would forgo a White House run and instead support some other candidate, putting conservative values over personal ambitions. His “prediction” had the not-so-subtle tinge of a plea. Barnes is wary as well. He told me over e-mail that he’s still pro-Palin, but he’s “agnostic” over whether she should run for president. Compare that with this effusive paean that he penned in 2008:
She's a mother of five, a serious Christian, a tough-minded governor of Alaska, a fearless slayer of (male) political bigwigs, a beauty queen, a hunter. Palin, as best I can describe it, exudes a kind of middle-class magnetism. It's subdued but nonetheless very powerful. … Whether they know it or not, Republicans have a huge stake in Palin. If, after the election, they let her slip into political obscurity, they'll be making a tragic mistake.
Those who read the subtle inflections of the Standard for changes in the party line might also recognize a shift in tone. In November, the magazine published a devastating review of her reality TV show by staff writer Matt Labash. (“Would John Adams feel comfortable exhibiting his children next to Toddlers and Tiaras, which follows families on their quest for 'sparkly crowns, big titles, and lots of cash'? Would Abe Lincoln look diminished if he shared a marquee with I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant?”) Labash had never supported Palin, but the magazine’s willingness to shred Palin’s show read as a clear signal that Palin had “lost” the Standard.
And whatever happened to Rich Lowry, the National Review editor who was once Palin’s most ardent fan? In 2008, he penned an infamous love letter to Palin, which read: “I'm sure I'm not the only male in America who, when Palin dropped her first wink, sat up a little straighter on the couch and said, ‘Hey, I think she just winked at me.’ And her smile. By the end, when she clearly knew she was doing well, it was so sparkling it was almost mesmerizing. It sent little starbursts through the screen and ricocheting around the living rooms of America.” Lately, he’s been conspicuously silent (Lowry did not reply for requests to comment for this article), and he has pushed for Jeb Bush to run, saying that he believes Bush will have a better chance of winning the general election.
When an ABC News reporter at the CPAC conference interviewed attendees about her no-show, one 24-year-old Texan dressed in an Uncle Sam suit offered that "Sarah is in our hearts. Sarah is probably on TV. I don't know, but I don't really care. She's just a media personality to me." It’s a sentiment borne out by the polls: According to a late January CNN accounting, while 70 percent of Republicans still have a favorable view of her, just 19 percent say they would support her in a presidential primary.
The truth is that Palin seems to have lost a huge amount of her political appeal, and it’s hard to imagine how she’ll ever get it back. Barnes, in our e-mail exchange, declared that, no matter what her 2012 decision, Palin has “done one thing: she's gained considerable influence in national politics.” And yet when I pressed him on what kind of influence, he replied, “Does Palin have influence? Who knows?”