When the history of US politics in the early 21st century is written, two figures will stand out: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.
The election of Mr. Obama to the highest elective office -- the first African-American to win the presidency -- did not necessarily signal a new era of post-racial politics. But coming just a generation after federal troops in the South (and a federal judge in Boston) were necessary to desegregate public schools, it was a huge milestone.
Sarah Palin was not the first woman to win a major political party’s vice presidential nomination; that was US Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale’s running mate way back in 1984.
But the presence of the former Alaska governor on the GOP ticket headed by Sen. John McCain in 2008 invigorated the party -- at the time, at least. And although they lost to Obama and Joe Biden, it wasn’t the blowout that Mondale and Ferraro suffered against Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
Ferraro went on to relative political obscurity, twice losing Democratic Party primaries for the US Senate. Ms. Palin, on the other hand, was just getting started when the returns for the 2008 presidential race were being counted.
A political force of nature
Over the next few years, she became a political force of nature -- stirring a tea party base that thronged to her appearances, scaring GOP incumbents deemed too willing to find common ground with Democrats, and building a very lucrative business that included (for one season, at least) her own “reality” TV show while launching one of her five children -- daughter Bristol -- on her own entertainment career.
Meanwhile, as with some other conservative ex-elected officials like Mike Huckabee, Palin was given a sinecure of sorts as a commentator for Fox News, which built a studio in her home in Wasilla, Alaska, from which she railed against the “lamestream media” and anything Obama proposed or did as President.
No matter that Mrs. Palin became the butt of liberal jokes, driving left-leaning bloviators nuts, and giving a huge boost to the acting career of Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey. Her “Grizzly Mama” persona -- a sharp-edged folksiness with the occasional rhetorical stumble -- attracted at least as many people as it turned off. “Run, Sarah, Run!” echoed among adoring throngs urging her to run for the White House.
Although not every candidate she endorsed in 2010 won, her record was respectable.
In competitive primaries,” Politics Daily correspondent Sandra Fish wrote at the time, “Palin is 7-2 for Senate endorsements; 7-6 for House endorsements; and 6-3 in endorsements of gubernatorial candidates.” Eventually, there were notable loses -- Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Joe Miller in Palin’s home state -- but she also helped send Kelly Ayotte to the US Senate representing New Hampshire.
Since then, Republicans lost the presidency -- again to Obama. In Charlotte, North Carolina, this week, GOP higher ups are trying to figure out whether it’s the party’s message or the (largely) white, (largely) older, (largely) male profile that’s the problem as US political demographics move away from them to a younger, more diverse electorate. The tea party has not folded, but neither is it the force it once was.
Meanwhile, establishment Republicans continue their move away from Palin. Her feuds with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney made news, as did her apparent snubbing by organizers of Mitt Romney’s nominating convention in Tampa last summer.
More recently, Colin Powell criticized Palin for using a “racial-era slave term” in describing the nation’s first African-American president.
“When I see a former governor say that the president is ‘shuckin’ and jivin’ -- that’s a racial-era slave term,” Mr. Powell said, referring to Palin’s characterization of Obama’s response to the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.
Such comments, Powell said on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, indicate a “dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party.”
If this is sounding like a political obituary for Sarah Palin, it may well be.
It was reported this week that Palin will no longer be a paid commentator on Fox News. Whether she jumped or was pushed is not entirely clear, but the news was not surprising. She has not appeared on Fox since December, and she complained on Facebook when some earlier appearances were canceled.
Her relationship with Fox News CEO Roger Ailes -- who hired her because “she was hot and got ratings” -- re reported to have been pricklish.
As Jill Lawrence writes in the National Journal, “She could land somewhere else, and she still has her Facebook friends, but it’s hard to imagine she’ll find a more visible or influential platform than Fox.”