Sarah Palin Goes to War: Go for It? Hell, Yes!

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin speaks at a campaign rally in Mesa, Ariz., on March 27, 2010

After signing his landmark health care measure into law and restoking the fires of his presidency, Barack Obama took a victory lap in Iowa on March 25 and dared Republicans to put health care repeal at the center of their 2010 campaigns with the cheeky challenge "Go for it." Sarah Palin jumped in with both high-heeled feet and a rallying cry the equivalent of "Hell, yes!"

In Washington, many Republican leaders are now waffling and wavering over their previous aggressively negative stance on the health care bill, seeing peril in opposing the measure's more popular provisions. They are searching for a more nuanced and modulated message that will allow them to avoid the damning Party of No label, while still making their principles clear. But Sarah Palin doesn't really do nuance or modulation. Defiance is more her style, and this past weekend she used her folksy brand of full-throated opposition to dominate American politics yet again with appearances in Arizona and Nevada. The lady from the frozen north happens to be one heck of a Sun Belt candidate, and within the conservative movement she has unmatched national appeal.

With a trio of short, spunky speeches, she leaped back to the top of the broadcast networks' evening newscasts and a dominant position on cable TV, simply by stating her unvarnished opposition to Obamacare and deriding Democrats, Washington élites and the press. She laughed off the notion that rough language used by some Republicans might incite further acts of aggression, threats and abusive language that have come against legislators in the wake of the final health care vote. Palin herself has been the subject of criticism for urging her followers to "reload" rather than "retreat" after passage, and for using crosshair markings on her Facebook page to identify the list of Democrats she has targeted for defeat in the fall election. Quippy and tart, she mocked the "lamestream media," and offered her usual punch of charm and charisma, something the public and the press have hungered for since she mostly limited her exposure to Facebook updates, Twitter tweets and calculated appearances on Fox News, her new employer.

Indeed, by carefully controlling her own visibility — and refusing to be challenged or held accountable by adversaries or the press — she has become even more irresistible as programming and copy. Just last week, she signed a television deal reportedly worth millions to be featured in an eight-episode documentary called Sarah Palin's Alaska on Discovery's TLC channel. She'll add the show to Palin Inc., which already includes her richly compensated duties on Fox and another book on the way, as well as the mega–best seller Going Rogue and numerous private speaking engagements. But Palin plans to make time to help a roster of Republican candidates between now and November to keep her foothold in politics as well.

Palin hit the road this past weekend to influence the fortunes of two 27-year veterans of Congress, who simultaneously entered the House in 1983 and the Senate in 1987 and who are now facing the toughest races of their careers. Palin spent Friday and Saturday morning in Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz., to help save the job of John McCain, the man who put her on the political and cultural map when he added her to the Republican ticket in 2008. On Saturday afternoon, she touched down in the outskirts of Searchlight, Nev., birthplace and residence of the Democrats' embattled Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, to keynote the Tea Party movement's national-tour kickoff event, set firmly and deliberately on Reid's turf. In a taunt to the Silver State's senior Senator, thousands of angry activists from around Nevada and the country swarmed his hometown to make it clear they have placed his defeat for re-election at the top of their 2010 to-do list, and Reid's droopy poll numbers make it a real possibility.

While Reid was their primary target, they had plenty of harsh words for the President, the health care law, government spending, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, socialism and pretty much anything they see as encroaching on their freedom. Since there had been speculation about possible violence and outrageous behavior in Searchlight, the event was comparatively tame — no mob marching down the highway with lit torches or calls for public insurrection against Obama. But rhetorical deviancy and ugly signs abounded — visible during Palin's speech were placards and T-shirts reading "Send Obuma (sic) Back to Kenya," "Harry: Searchlight Needs You, America Doesn't" and "Pelosi Is the White House's New Monica" — and Palin made no effort at censure.

Neither did McCain escape the wrath of the signs in Nevada: one Tea Partyer hoisted the message "Reid-McCain: Two Sides of the Same Damn Coin. Vote Them Out." Another placard featured McCain's picture with the words "No More RINOs [Republicans in Name Only] — Retire McCain." Before Palin's arrival, activists in the crowd debated among themselves whether the former Alaska governor had fallen from grace by trying to save McCain, who is facing a spirited challenge in the state's August Republican primary from former Congressman and conservative talk-show host J.D. Hayworth. Although Hayworth doesn't have the formal backing of Arizona's Tea Party movement, his campaign's animating spirit — that McCain has been in the Senate for too long and has cooperated too much with Democrats on compromise legislation — is right in line with what grass-roots activists are championing this year.

But since joining him on the ticket, Palin has shown nothing but goodwill and loyalty to McCain — and he to her. They are no longer the virtual strangers they were when he asked her to be his running mate, but they do not maintain frequent personal or professional contact. Nevertheless, they are forever bonded as political husband and wife, and with that bond comes a mutual affection and respect, which smooths over any inherent awkwardness. Palin gratefully credits McCain for her newfound fame, wealth and power; McCain is fascinated by Palin's ability to draw a crowd and create news, and also feels a sense of responsibility for the intense scrutiny and radical life changes that have befallen her and her family. Back together on the stump for the first time since the end of the presidential campaign, Palin delivered the goods: earnestly, even poignantly, selling the message that McCain is a true Tea Party conservative and that the movement needs some battle-tested, experienced veterans in Congress to skillfully take the fight to the Democrats, alongside younger firebrands like Republican Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown and herself. "We need new blood," she said, "but we also need heroes and statesmen."

The Friday event in Tucson presented a familiar and nostalgic tableau, including spouses Cindy McCain and Todd Palin. Thousands of people went to the Pima County Fairgrounds, most of them apparently there to see Palin rather than the actual candidate (even Cindy highlighted this fact in her brief remarks, to nervous laughter). Notably, all the cable-news networks (Fox included) cut away from live coverage once Palin had concluded her remarks and McCain began his, although McCain's team professed only delight with the turnout. And the Senator gamely continued his conversion from a career of compromise with Democrats to a Republican determined to stand second to no one in vowing to thwart Obama's agenda, starting with overturning the new health care law. "It's going to be repealed and replaced, and it's going to be done soon," McCain thundered. "It will not stand."

Later, in Phoenix, Palin headlined a major fundraiser for McCain at the Biltmore Hotel, the venue where some McCain aides engaged in a climactic election-night clash with Palin over whether she would be allowed to deliver her own concession speech on the stage before McCain's. But most of the 2008 campaign advisers who viewed Palin as untrustworthy and erratic have left McCain's orbit, and his current aides were delighted to apply her star power to their troubled cause. With Palin in the state, they collected e-mail addresses for follow-up voter contact, raised some dough and attracted the kind of crowds and media coverage that McCain can no longer draw on his own. Perhaps most important, McCain was consecrated by the darling of the conservative movement, who inspires love from its members while he has stirred mostly mistrust.

Harry Reid, meanwhile, was hardly cowed by the onslaught of loathing swamping his state. After Palin finished Tea Partying in Nevada, the Senate majority leader appeared at an evening Democratic Party fundraiser in Las Vegas, featuring his old friend Al Gore as the keynote speaker. The former Vice President has not been very visible during the health care fight or its aftermath, but his remarks on Reid's behalf were passionate and compelling.

From the day McCain picked her from obscurity, Gore has seen Palin as a potent, raw political talent who is not to be underestimated. He didn't mention Palin by name, but he did say "anger is not a platform" and condemned voices who rail "against everything without any kind of sensible policy prescription" for alternatives. Gore's remarks were typical of those by other speakers at the event, including Reid. Democrats know it won't be easy to save control of Congress — and Reid's seat — in November. But the passage of health care gives the President's party confidence that they have a fighting chance to keep Palin from commanding her grass-roots army to victory. Don't be surprised if the former Alaska governor, as well as a host of politicians, pundits and the press, use martial imagery to describe events over the next seven months and to rally the troops accordingly. For Palin — and Obama, Reid and McCain — the passage of health care was not the war — it was just the opening battle.