If there is a political fact lab-tested to irritate reporters, it is this: Sarah Palin may be the most famous politician in America with a journalism degree. The University of Idaho graduate, who holds a bachelor's degree in communications with a focus on the life of kings, baits and commands the media like few people with her resume. If her power is fading—and five and a half years after she quit the governor's office, it is—she's still able to bait the press into covering her and mocking her, while she has the last chuckle at them.
Palin's generally disastrous speech at this weekend's Iowa Freedom Summit was a case in point. In the room and after, it was easy to find people who drifted or were offended by Palin's confusing self-obsession. (She spent a very long time ribbing the media for covering her entry into a charity race.) Yet much of the post-game has focused on a line that made perfect sense to Palin.
"Her address was a 34 1/2-minute roller coaster ride of cliches, non sequiturs and warmed-over grievances," wrote Karen Tumulty in the Washington Post. "One line that stood out: 'GOP leaders, by the way, you know, ‘The Man,’ can only ride ya when your back is bent. So strengthen it. Then The Man can’t ride ya.'" On the Daily Show, Palin's "the man can old ride ya" line was slotted into a parody of Matthew McConaughey's dada car commercials, because it was obviously gibberish.
It wasn't. The jarring line was actually a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final speech, delivered right before his 1968 assassination. "Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere," said King, "because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent."
In other words, Palin knew what she was doing. Palin's syntax has always been tangled, and even the 2006 gubernatorial debate performances that inspired the John McCain campaign to add her to the ticket were full of verbal meanderings. (Palin on stem cell research, for example: "Here again, with a pro-life position, and it's interesting that so many questions I get do revolve around that centered-ness that I have, of respecting life and the potential of human life, that no, stem cell research that would ultimately end in destruction of life, I could not support.") The Iowa speech was a mess, but not atypical. What was new, in the aftermath, was conservatives finding more utility in rejecting her than in rejecting the media's portrayal of her.
This started with an influential column by Byron York, one of the sharpest observers on the right, who diagnosed a "Palin problem" for the GOP. (He also listed "the man can only ride ya when your back is bent" among the lowlights of the "ramble.") Out of nowhere, having made no moves toward a presidential campaign, Palin was telling reporters she might run again. That raised expectations for her speech; when she rambled, York quickly found conservatives who (on and off the record) found her embarrassing.
That was highly amusing for Nicolle Wallace, the 2008 Palin handler who had turned her nightmare into a successful writing and punditry career. "It's interesting that Byron York came to that conclusion," said Wallace on Morning Joe. "In 2008, he was one of her staunchest defenders. I remember being on the cell phone with him. He was one of the harshest critics of the campaign's handling of her, I think really thought that the problem with Palin was in our packaging of Palin. To see him come full circle—I mean, this is who she is."
And the Palin political eulogies that followed have usually come with some agenda. Matt Lewis, a conservative pundit who admitted that Palin critics like Kathleen Parker were pretty right, put in a sales pitch. "My last book was a collection of Palin quotes," he wrote. "My new book (out early in 2016) is called Too Dumb to Fail." In a column for the Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway argued that Palin's decline was "not really news," then defended her against the "entirely shameful and unjustified" attacks her family took from the media, then pivoted into a familiar story of media bias.
"Please do recall that the other option for VP in 2008 was Joe Biden, who after 36 years in the Senate was a well-documented liar of few real accomplishments, not to mention total buffoon," wrote Hemingway. "With all the tabloid coverage of Palin and her family since 2008 her critics certainly act like they're vindicated, but it's telling they don't even try to make the argument that Joe Biden was a superior man for the job."
This saw is as old as Palin's vice presidential campaign; in October 2008, Victor Davis Hanson wrote a whole column out of Joe Biden gaffes, imagining how the press would react if Palin said them. (Still, Hemingway's 95 percent right about the tabloid focus on Palin's family versus Biden's. The National Enquirer has stayed on the "Biden cocaine scandal" beat, but it hasn't escaped the undernews.)
The return of the "what about Biden?" trope was a good clue that Palin was not really Over, as was the Washington Post's reliance on Charles C. Cooke in the story about Palin losing "one-time fans on the right." Cooke, a writer for National Review, definitely presented a contrast with the magazine's old Palinphilia. She had collapsed into an "ignominious pasquinade," he wrote.
Yet Cooke didn't actually write any of NR's 2008 praise of Palin. "I was never a supporter," Cooke wrote in an e-mail. "I've always disliked her—right from the start (her acceptance speech aside). I've occasionally defended her when I thought the charges were unfair...but more criticism than defense, on balance."
Did Palin lose some fans and defenders with her Iowa speech? Yes. Did she end her relevance in the GOP? Not at all. As Palin spoke, Public Policy Polling tweeted to remind people that she had higher favorable ratings among Iowa Republicans than any possible 2016 candidate save Mike Huckabee. Would any Republican candidate turn down a Palin endorsement? Hard to imagine, and when Palin's at home in Alaska, she's governed by an independent whom she endorsed over her former lieutenant governor. Here's a fun one: Would any TV channel turn down a Palin interview? If not, how "over" can she be?
The question isn't really whether a post-Iowa Freedom Summit Palin is a credible presidential candidate. She isn't. The question's whether she remains influential with conservative activists, and useful for conservatives in culture war fights. She is.
As the "whither Palin?" debate raged, I checked in with the person who was best positioned to adjudicate this. Peter Singleton moved to Iowa in the run-up to 2012, to organize the state just in case Palin ran for president. When she didn't, he was crushed. He saw no sign that she would run in 2016, apart from what she said to reporters while hyping her speech.
"I honestly don’t know what the governor’s plans are for 2016, and of course I still have the highest regard and respect for her," said Singleton. "I’m certain she’ll be a major part of the public debate in whatever capacity she believes is most appropriate, and I suspect she will continue to raise critical issues that no one else is raising, or at least not as persuasively, such as crony capitalism and the permanent political class and the impact of both on our country, which I think are such important issues. For example, there’s still no one in either party who has laid out the case like she did in Indianola in early September of 2011—and she’s continued to do so since then."