Sarah Palin has emerged as the right's sweetheart, a cross between a pin-up girl and Joan of Arc. For some activists, like the American Thinker's Lloyd Marcus, she's "my awesome conservative sister" who the mainstream media wants to "destroy at any cost."
On a more serious note, leading right-wing pundit Roger Simon argues Palin's is now the biggest name in Republicandom, which he admits is not too great an accomplishment. Armed with "something more than intellect," he praises her unique ability to "connect with the base." He also believes, citing some polls for 2012, that she could run a close race against President Obama.
These Republicans may grow to regret their embrace of Sarah Palin: She will likely prove less a gem than a poison pearl for conservatives. Sure, she can stir the base, but her crossover appeal remains limited. Recent Pew surveys show that she's still toxic for the Independents and moderate Democrats who generally determine national elections.
Palin keeps building her brand, but she may also be diminishing the GOP's. She has helped propel several potentially weak, marginal "Tea Party" candidates such as Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada into the general elections. These could end up losing seats that more earth-bound Republicans could have won.
But if conservatives really want evidence of Palin's limitations, they only need to talk to people in her home state of Alaska. "She represents a constituency that is rural, but that's it," says Jim Egan, executive director of Commonwealth North, a local think tank. "What she says and does makes little sense in the urban environment that most Americans live in." If it does not sell across the board in Anchorage, home to almost half of Alaskans, you wonder how well her message will play in Omaha or suburban Houston, much less New York or Los Angeles.
Conservatives in Washington might also cool their drool, Egan suggests, if they examine Palin's Alaska record. True, she did initially take on some in-bred corruption, but she left the state as dependent on oil revenues and federal largesse as before. She left no strong legacy, particularly in comparison with the late former Sen. Ted Stevens--known widely as "Uncle Ted"--who brought heaps of federal blubber to the Last Frontier.
In contrast, Palin is seen by many Alaskans--including business-oriented conservatives--as a hopeless lightweight. "She's a narcissistic individual," suggests Republican State Sen. Craig Johnson. "What bothers me is people think we are like Sarah Palin. We're not."
To Johnson and many Alaska political veterans Palin is more self-promoter than serious politician. Even as some are touting her as a serious candidate for president of the United States, it's important to realize she proved ill-prepared to be governor of Alaska--more interested in powdering her nose than putting it to the grindstone.
And remember that Alaska, a vast, underpopulated state of 700,000 hard-working individuals, does not require the horsepower needed to rule a disaster zone like Michigan, much less a mega insane asylum like California. For one thing, Alaska, due to its huge mineral wealth, is a comparatively rich state, with the eighth highest per capita income in the nation. Over 80% of the state budget comes through energy-related taxes. Everyone even gets a nifty $1,300 check as well, also paid for by the energy companies.
Egan and others argue that Palin, who boosted the return to taxpayers from oil revenues, failed to capitalize on these assets. The state's bulging revenues during the energy price spike of 2007-08 could have been applied to badly needed infrastructure and education, not to buy new snowmobiles and shotguns. "She epitomizes the whole idea of we get a piece and no sense of planning for the future, about thinking about what we need to do," Egan says.
In this sense Palin appeals to the grifter spirit of America--opportunistic and self-centered. This was amply evidenced by her decision to quit office mid-way through her first term for the more lucrative job of cashing in on her personality cult. "Sarah Palin was a breath of fresh air," says one-time supporter Iris Gardner, who with her husband operates a mercantile store in Alaska's scenic Seward (population 3,000). "But she blew all that when she quit. People have soured on her."
This view is widely shared in Alaska. Today, according to Alaskadispatch.com, about half of Alaskans want to be "done with her." Only 56% of Republicans count themselves as Palin fans. She is widely unpopular among both Democrats and Independents, the state's largest electoral base, the Dispatch noted.
So we have to ask why Palin continues to be attractive for so many conservatives? It has more to do with subliminals than the subtleties of public policy. Palin's power is not that of serious policymaker but rather as someone with a keen understanding of message and branding. Still, Palin's appeal cannot be easily dismissed. Certainly charisma does not necessarily translate into a lack of gravitas. Prominent conservatives like Norman Podhoretz have pointed out that Ronald Reagan too was considered a lightweight by many in the mainstream media.
Yet those who knew and covered Reagan--like my old boss Lou Cannon--always argued Reagan was a serious figure, surrounded by a coterie of very smart advisers. He had spent decades in and around politics before ascending to the White House. Palin, in contrast, seems to be making up her politics along the way.
Reagan also served two terms as governor of California, despite running for the nomination in 1976. Even today he enjoys some considerable respect from longtime opponents, as well as something close to adoration among friends. As those who interviewed him can attest, he also was very sharp: Reagan would have never allowed a Katie Couric to get the better of him. To paraphrase the famous Lloyd Bentsen's quip about Dan Quayle, Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan.
Still Palin's populist appeal seems well-suited against a Democratic Party--and a president--burdened with what seems like a congenital inability to connect with most middle- and working-class concerns. Barack Obama has turned intellectualism into a liability.
There's also the novelty factor working in Palin's favor. "It's a sense of mystery we can't keep away from," Jim Egan suggests. In this sense, oddly, she's a bit like Barack Obama--someone people enthuse over not because they are ready for the job but because they appeal to some emotional need for novelty. But, as Palin herself would say, how's that working out for ya?
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.