What next for Sarah Palin? Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair profile is designed to be, as Jason Zengerle puts it, brutal. But, as the Economist's Democracy in America notes, there are times when it also, perhaps unwittingly, makes one feel a little sorry for Governor Palin. Whatever her shortcomings, she wasn't the one who put her into a national race she was ill-prepared to handle and, whatever else may be said about her behaviour on the campaign trail, unattributable sniping from John McCain's advisers should be taken with some salt, not least because it so conveniently absolves McCain of the mistakes that helped doom his campaign.
Palin is a useful target for just about everyone these days. And while I agree with Philip Klein that there's not much that's truly new in the piece, it does actually show how, in different circumstances and, perhaps, a different time, Palin could have offered the campaign something significant. Here, for instance, is part of what she said to a pro-lifecrowd in Indiana earlier this year:
In Evansville, though, Palin concentrated on the task at hand: an emphatic defense of the anti-abortion cause. But in doing so she made a startling confession about what she thought when she learned she was pregnant at 43 with her youngest child, Trig, who arrived in April 2008, as the world now knows, with Down syndrome. “I had found out that I was pregnant while out of state first,” Palin told the crowd. “While out of state, there just for a fleeting moment, I thought, Nobody knows me here. Nobody would ever know. I thought, Wow, it is easy to think maybe of trying to change the circumstances and no one would know—no one would ever know. Then when my amniocentesis results came back, showing what they called abnormalities—oh, dear God—I knew, I had instantly an understanding, for that fleeting moment, why someone would believe it could seem possible to change those circumstances, just make it all go away, get some normalcy back in life.”
Of course, it didn't work out like that but when you see Palin talking like this you can see what attracted the McCain campaign. If McCain had been a decade younger, Palin's ignorance of national policy, let alone foreign and security policy, issues would not have been such a grievous, crippling handicap. She could have been the PTA Vice-President, a politician who understood the problems of "ordinary" and "hard-working" families because she'd endured some of those problems herself - including spells when she and her family were only covered by catastrophic health insurance. Couple that with the still-alluring notion of a candidate from the American frontier and you have the outlines of an Idea that could have been tremendously powerful. That is, the potential impact of a certain kind of homespun, empathetic populism should not be dismissed or even discounted.
In the end it was all far too much far too soon and Palin was, not always unfairly, reduced to a cartoonish set of stereotypes. That's had damaging consequences for her future chances: not least because her popularity in Alaska has tumbled. Theoretically, however, it should still be possible for Palin, if she wants it, to be a dangerous candidate on the national scene in 2012. Her appeal to a significant section of the Republican party remains obvious and, if she learns the lessons of 2008, there is still the possibility that she could convince voters that she deserves a second look in 2012. Granted, there's no guarantee that she will have learnt those lessons and, right now, it still seems unlikely that she can win the GOP nomination but she remains, whether one approves of this or not, a star in a party that needs all the stars it can get.
The shame of Paln's emergence last year isn't that she blundered so badly, it's that there was something there but that, after her convention speech, that something was lost in the tumult that engulfed her and, in the end, helped destroy the McCain campaign.
As always, we should remember that Scott Fitzgerald's famous quip that "there are no second acts in American lives" exists solely so that it can be proved wrong. Like most people, I've no idea where the Sarah Palin Story will end. But will it continue to run and run? You betcha...
UPDATE: As you might expect, Andrew has a different take. Having initially dismissed Purdum's "absurd puff piece" Andrew read it and declares it "a superb summary of the Wasilla whack-job". And, for sure, there's plenty in it that's not good news for the governor. It's the bits that don't confirm much of what we learned about her that I think are more interesting.