News & Politics

Sarah Palin Aims to Bust Up the Republican Party -- And the Tea Party Movement

Palin's speech was her boilerplate of non sequiturs and cognitive disconnections, but in the interview that followed, she revealed her hand in a game for the presidency.

Sarah Palin appears to be running for president of the United States of America. You betcha.

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In an interview with Chris Wallace, recorded on the eve of her Saturday night special of a speech to the Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville (and aired yesterday on Fox News Sunday), Palin didn't quite confirm that speculation, but left the door wide open.

"Why wouldn't you run for president?" Wallace asked.

"I would," Palin replied. "I would if I believe that that is the right thing to do for our country and for the Palin family. Certainly, I would do so."

Palin's address to the Tea Partiers was standard for her: boilerplate in its arrangement of non sequiturs and cognitive disconnects. She railed against the Obama administration for ostensibly violating the 10th Amendment to the Constitution -- the one that guarantees states' rights -- and then offered a health-care "fix" that violates that very amendment (allowing consumers to purchase policies across state lines, which basically intrudes upon the state's right to regulate the insurance industry within the state). She charged the administration with trampling on the Constitution, while asserting that "foreign terrorists" arrested here aren't entitled to constitutional rights. (Uh, actually, the Constitution confers those rights on anyone in the U.S. justice system -- citizen or not.)

She stoked up the right's anti-intellectual animus by taking shots at President Obama's alleged elitism, and went after him for purportedly being soft on terrorism and dictators. All predictable, and a good move if you're planning to be the opposition candidate to the president's 2012 bid for re-election.

But during the question-and-answer session that followed with Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips, Palin departed from the chant of her familiar refrain to tacitly reveal her hand -- and not just the talking points scribbled on it -- for the strategy she may use to clear her path to the presidency. That path-clearing seems to involve the sowing of discord, not just within the Republican Party, but within the Tea Party movment as well, along with a sprinkle of discord dust on the Democratic Party for good measure.

Palin took pre-selected questions from conference attendees that were submitted through the Tea Party Nation Web site, and read by Phillips.

In answer to one question, Palin noted with enthusiasm that many Tea Party activists are not registered Republicans -- just like the former first dude of Alaska.

"My husband -- he's not a registered Republican. He's probably more conservative than I am, " she told the convention.

Indeed, Todd Palin, for seven years was a member of the secessionist Alaska Independence Party, which is the Alaska chapter of the theocratic Constitution Party founded by Howard Phillips (no relation to Judson Phillips), one of the architects of the religious right.

TP's membership in AIP created a bit of a problem for the McCain presidential campaign, and within the campaign, according to campaign aide Steve Schmidt, who had to battle Palin to keep her from denying that fact, which was easily verifiable by any enterprising reporter. Todd Palin left the party before his wife hit the campaign trail as McCain's running-mate, but maintained his independent voting status.

(Todd Palin made news again this week, when an investigation by NBC News revealed e-mails that showed him deeply involved in the governance of the State of Alaska during his wife's truncated term as governor.)

Sarah Palin told the Tea Partiers that she supposed she owed an apology to the Republican Party for not being able to persuade her husband to join. Yet she spent the early part of her speech lauding the victory of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who won his seat with a lot of out-of-state help from Tea Partiers.

During her question-time at the convention -- she only took questions submitted in advance through the convention Web site -- Sarah Palin no doubt pleased the theocrats of her husband's former party when she would like to see leaders who were willing to "seek[ ] some divine intervention in this country" -- someone who wouldn't fear what the media would report when they "proclaim their dependence on our creator."

In her speech and during her question-and-answer session, Palin applauded the primary challenges that some Tea Party activists are launching for contested congressional and Senate seats in the 2010 election. "Contested primaries aren't civil war," she said in her speech. "They're democracy, and that's beautiful."

She hinted that she may campaign for some of those challengers. (In Arizona, however, she has angered some Tea Party activists by backing the candidacy of her former running mate instead of the Tea Party-backed challenger to Sen. McCain, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.)

Yet for all cheerleading of the Tea Partiers, Palin seems just as poised to bust up their movement, and encouraged some light demolition within the Democratic Party, as well.

Despite strongly articulated qualms by some movement activists that the GOP was co-opting their movement, Palin told the audience that "the Republican Party woudl be really smart to start absorbing as much of the Tea Party movement as possible."

Of the Democrats, she said, "It's pretty cool to see some of these Blue Dog Democrats peekin' under the [Tea Party] tent."

It's tempting for progressives to dismiss Palin as a lightweight based on her well-demonstrated ignorance of -- well, a whole lot of things. But that doesn't mean she's not clever. That doesn't mean she's not up to something.

What Palin appears to be doing is adopting the old Howard Phillips strategy of sowing discord in all camps, in order to pick up the shards left behind, and build something of them. In her interview with Chris Wallace, Palin cited a column by Pat Buchanan that assessed the scenarios by which Obama might win or lose in 2012. Buchanan almost became Phillips' candidate for his third party (then called the U.S. Taxpayers Party) in 1996; by threatening to walk the delegates he won in the presidential primary out of the GOP, he won Phyllis Schlafly and his sister, Bay Buchanan, control of the Republican Party Platform.

(You may recall that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Buchanan asserted that Palin had campaigned for him, but then walked it back when Palin denied it.)

Sarah Palin will never win a majority of America's votes, should she run for president. But she's probably betting that she could win a plurality if the major parties and the Tea Party movement are divided.

At one point, Judson Phillips said to Palin, "I can think of two words that scare liberals: 'President Palin'."

With that, the crowd broke into a spontaneous chant: "Run, Sarah, run!"

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief.