FROM: Mark Halperin
TO: Coastal Elites, the Media and Establishment Politicians of Both Parties
RE: Sarah Heath Palin
Don't underestimate Sarah Palin. Yes, she is hyper-polarizing: she sends her fans into rapture and drives her detractors stark raving mad. But she can dominate the news cycle with a single tweet and generate three days of coverage with a single speech (as she did this past Friday in Iowa). Her name recognition is universal.
You are right to complain that she is not offering specific policy proposals and that her inaccessibility to media outlets other than the one that pays her Fox News puts her beyond the kind of scrutiny and accountability we have come to expect for our leaders.
But the mistake you are making is to assume that Palin needs or wants to play by the standard rules of American politics. Or that it even occurs to her to do so. Trash her all you want (even you Republicans who are doing it all the time behind her back) for being uninformed, demagogic and incoherent, and brandish the poll numbers that show fewer and fewer Americans think she is qualified to be President. Strain to apply political and practical norms to Alaska's former governor. You are missing the point.
Surely you've come to accept the reality that as a businessperson, Palin is a genius. The gusher of revenue from her speeches, books and television deals sweeps away any doubt that she can brilliantly harness her energy, charisma and popularity into a moneymaking bonanza.
But what you need to appreciate is that the same dynamics of supply and demand that Palin has cleverly exploited for financial gain also make her inimitably formidable as a political force.
Take this weekend's Des Moines, Iowa, speech, for example. You all perceived it as a rambling nothingburger of a diatribe, with a convoluted, self-pitying screed about the media. And you considered the trip itself a missed opportunity, since Palin held no meetings with grass-roots activists and didn't lay a foundation for the kind of voter contact essential to compete in the Hawkeye State's caucuses.
But ask yourself why Palin was in Iowa this of all weekends. Remember that she herself negotiated the date for the Iowa Republican Party's annual Ronald Reagan dinner. This allowed her to conveniently skip the Values Voter Summit simultaneously going on in Washington, where most of the other potential 2012 Republican candidates appeared. By choosing Iowa over Washington, Palin avoided having to compete head to head with her would-be rivals and dodged the event's concluding straw poll. Meanwhile, Palin got more weekend coverage than all the other prospects combined. Not everything she has done thus far has been obviously calculated, but her choices overall have been too savvy to be coincidence or luck.
The past 22 months have been replete with situations in which Palin has refused to adhere to the conventional playbook of presidential contenders and party honchos. That posture, along with let's face it her watchability, star quality and good looks, is what keeps her core supporters hanging on her every word. Her followers forgive her sloppy syntax and seemingly haphazard methodology to them, this makes her accessible, relatable and real. The more she is attacked and belittled, the more they rally to her defense. And when she has laid hands on her chosen 2010 candidates, such as Nikki Haley and Christine O'Donnell, she is able to transfer that protective shell, shepherding them through the slings and arrows of "the politics of personal destruction" to victories against Establishment favorites.
Palin's strength also derives from the unwillingness of you Republicans to take her on or to call her out for her more detrimental candidate selections and statements. Her endorsements of Joe Miller in Alaska and O'Donnell in Delaware cost her party their two preferred Senate nominees and put those seats in jeopardy for the GOP. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the longtime Palin foe who lost the nomination fight to Miller, has just announced her decision to go rogue and launch a write-in campaign to retain her job, flouting Palin's judgment and mocking the efforts to intimidate her out of the race.
But Murkowski is an exception. Most of you Republicans are afraid to challenge Palin publicly, in part because you recognize that she speaks to the mood and emotions of the Tea Party and other conservatives better than anyone else. Her anti-Washington barbs and taunting denigration of the President and his policies hit home and get out the vote. She is almost certainly going to be in a position to take a victory lap of sorts on Nov. 2.
Palin is operating on a different plane, hovering higher than a mere celebrity, more buoyant than an average politician. Some of you are too young, or too forgetful, to recall the breathless fusses over Donald Trump and Warren Beatty when they toyed with presidential bids, or how much oxygen Ross Perot sucked up when he ran in 1992. You may think Palin is full of hot air, but there is enough of it to power her from Alaska to the Republican nomination in 2012, and until she unambiguously takes herself out of the running, or until the nomination is definitively won by another, she will remain both a force and a force field.
All of you are certain she can't win the presidency and as of today you are right. But the nomination is another kettle of salmon, and she bears more in common with the past three presidential winners than with the passel of hopefuls clamoring for donations, press attention and straw votes. She is like Obama: the camera loves her and both sides of the political spectrum hang on her every word. She is like Bush: able to communicate with religious conservatives and Middle Americans. Most of all, she is like Bill Clinton: what doesn't kill Sarah Palin makes her stronger. So as the world gets ready for the midterm elections and for the start of the epic contest in which Republicans will pick their champion to go into battle against Barack Obama, be advised: Palin is very much alive and, despite what you think, extraordinarily strong.
One Nation, Halperin's politics column for TIME.com, appears every Monday.