The Second Coming of Sarah Palin

If you haven't yet decided what to get your loved ones for the holidays, your worries may be over: Going Rogue: An American Life, by one Sarah Palin, will be available in bookstores Nov. 17, months ahead of schedule. I, for one, cannot wait.

Palin's book will no doubt be a huge success. Whatever else you can say about conservatives, they do their part to support the publishing industry -- every midlevel right-wing talk-radio host has his own best-seller, and the latest clip job by Michelle Malkin or Ann Coulter is guaranteed to climb to the top of The New York Times' list. Within days of the announcement of its new publishing date -- and weeks before it arrives in stores -- Going Rogue catapulted to No. 1 on Amazon.

Anyone who thought Palin might fade from public view after her spectacular swan dive off the roof of the Alaska governor's mansion turns out to have been wrong. And it's a good thing, because her fans will need a leader in the ongoing battle for soul of the Republican Party.

The original plan for Going Rogue was to have it co-released by Harper Collins and Zondervan, the company's Christian imprint. There were early reports that the Zondervan version would contain some extra content just for the Christian audience, but that no longer appears to be the case. It's too bad, because that plan would have been marketing genius -- the publishing equivalent of the "unrated" DVD release, with all the juicy, extra-Christian stuff that regular folks just can't handle. It would make religious booksellers even more eager to feature the "right" version of the book and would tempt buyers with the prospect of content too hot (or holy) for mainstream viewing.

Politically, the alternate version would have heightened -- if it's possible -- the feeling among Palin's socially conservative supporters that they are an isolated, besieged minority, heroic in their brave defense of traditional values. They would know that though Palin has to talk to the country as a whole, her real message is for them. And right now, they need some love.

It hasn't been much noticed, but the religious right seems to have been displaced as the GOP's primary grass-roots force. The ascendant "tea bagger" movement, with its Revolutionary War nostalgia (tea parties, cries of "Tyranny!", "Don't Tread On Me" flags), lacks religious character. The tea baggers aren't trying to reclaim America for the return of Jesus -- if their movement has a scripture, it's not the Bible but Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, a decidedly earthly text embraced by 19-year-old frat boys everywhere who find irresistible its worship of radical selfishness.

The people who pay the GOP's bills -- the corporations, business interests, and super-rich -- were always a little uneasy about the religious right. They knew that they needed ground forces to elect Republicans, and they were happy to pay the Ralph Reeds of the world to bring evangelicals out to the streets. But your average industrialist doesn't care much about abortion or same-sex marriage (a majority of Fortune 500 companies, including over 80 percent of the top 100, offer domestic-partner benefits -- it's just good business). What the captain of industry wants is a government that does his bidding without asking him to contribute anything in return.

And now look what he's found in the tea baggers: Regular folks who will go out and campaign against taxes, regulation, a government safety net, and the very idea of a common good. It's worth getting on your knees and thanking the heavens for.

But while the tea baggers rage and shout and rally and organize, the religious right largely watches from the sidelines. Not that it isn't trying to hitch its wagon to this new "Patriot" movement, as TAP's Sarah Posner has reported. The old guard has done its part to condemn health-care reform (because after all, if Jesus were around today, he certainly would rather that 45,000 Americans die every year for lack of insurance than that they get coverage through the government, right?). But the voices of the Christian Right just serve as background noise to the Glenn Beck acolytes in their tri-corner hats with their "Obama bin lyin'!" signs. And behind the scenes, the usual crowd of corporate-funded conservative political professionals are providing the organization and guidance the tea baggers need.

The religious right doesn't really have a single leader at the moment, leaving an opening for Sarah Palin -- and who knows, perhaps she has already felt the call. If all goes well, Going Rogue's success will be a prelude to a Palin presidential campaign, a rallying point for religious conservatives and a welcome antidote to a Republican nominating contest that otherwise promises to be an express train to Snoozeville. A vigorous debate between Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty on who hates taxes the most doesn't exactly get the blood pumping, but any contest with Palin in it would be intriguing, to say the least. (Plus, her candidacy would spur Romney to a degree of disingenuous pandering to the religious right so epic the former Massachusetts governor might be consumed in the effort. I picture him like the T-1000 at the end of Terminator 2, screaming in agony as he cycles through all the personas he has adopted, until he finally liquefies.)

Even if presidential candidates don't "run" their campaigns in much of a practical sense, campaigns tend to reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the person whose name is on the bumper stickers. Barack Obama's campaign was brilliant, methodical, and relentlessly focused on the long term; meanwhile, John McCain's was erratic, unfocused, and improvisational. So what would a Sarah Palin presidential campaign be? It would be a pulsating mass of resentment, backbiting, and paranoia. There would be disastrous mistakes and inexplicable decisions, uncontrolled flailing and pointed fingers, crazy conspiracies and bizarre outbursts. In short, it would be just about the greatest story a political journalist could hope for.

Steve Schmidt, the operative who ran John McCain's 2008 campaign, recently said that if the GOP were to nominate Palin in 2012, it would be "catastrophic." Probably so, but it sure would be a blast. Meanwhile, McCain himself seems to be trying to keep the party from being taken over by people like his former running mate. Politico reported last week that McCain is beginning an effort to "broaden the party's reach" by recruiting and fundraising for moderate candidates.

As crazy as many of the tea baggers are, they at least offer a clearer path to GOP renewal when compared to Palin and the social conservatives. You could take their libertarianism, add a layer of kinder, gentler social policies of the kind that have been promoted by some within the party, and come up with an amalgam that could potentially appeal to a majority of Americans, given the right set of circumstances.

But the way of the religious right leads to defeat, not just today but into the future. Its brand of backward-looking aggrievement and tribal resentment appeals to a narrower slice of the increasingly diverse electorate with each passing year. The GOP is on its way to being a purely regional party, unable to win elections anywhere but in the South, parts of the Midwest, and Mountain States like Idaho and Wyoming. Nothing would accelerate that process more than Sarah Palin becoming the face of the Republican Party.

With every copy of Going Rogue sold, Palin will probably become more and more convinced that the public is calling her and that she has no choice but to lead her people out of the socialist desert America has become and into the promised land. You might want to get yourself a copy.

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