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Palin's Call For Impeachment Reopens Debate Over ... Sarah Palin

Former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin introduces U.S. Senate challenger Chris McDaniel at a May 29 rally in Ellisville, Miss.
George Clark
Former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin introduces U.S. Senate challenger Chris McDaniel at a May 29 rally in Ellisville, Miss.

It's nice to see Sarah Palin back in the news. Nice, that is, if you're a Sarah fan — or if you're a Democrat, or a member of the media.

Palin's fans, and they are legion on the right, love her reliably tough-talking take on how conservatives should fight President Obama and his use of executive power to circumvent Congress.

Writing for Breitbart.com and speaking to Sean Hannity on FOX, Palin has insisted the required "high crimes and misdemeanors" are in evidence. All that's lacking, she adds, are party leaders with "cajones."

That's delightful for Democrats, who often say the struggles in Washington are driven by rabid, anti-Obama haters. The other lip-smacking sound you hear comes from all the media operations starved for domestic political news in the doldrums of July. Check out the number of websites (including this one) that got a chance to haul out their Palin photo files this week.

But none of this is nearly so nice for Republicans who've been trying to channel anger at President Obama in directions that could do the GOP more good. Speaker John Boehner has tried to take impeachment off the table in the House and stifle talk of it whenever he could. The House is moving this week to authorize Boehner to sue the president, a move Palin mocked as "bringing a lawsuit to a gunfight."

Hers was not the first, nor perhaps the most compelling voice urging impeachment in public. But Sarah Palin continues to command a special level of attention when she does or says things most people would not. After she weighed in, every prominent Republican in the country was suddenly getting questioned about it.

Their response, at least in the office-holding and office-seeking class, ranged from noncommittal to a flat out "not happening."

Even on Fox, Bill O'Reilly and others dismissed the impeachment gambit immediately. They clearly recall the bruising Republicans took for making that move against Bill Clinton in 1998 — when they scuttled their own chances for gains in that year's midterm elections and saw public approval of Clinton actually go up.

So the Palin thrust was parried, and serious talk of impeachment effectively squelched. Given this blowback, what has she accomplished?

First, and perhaps foremost, there is this: Once again the national political conversation includes the name Sarah Palin. She is once again the tip of the spear, at least in the realms of the right, and not just another spear carrier.

In the current election cycle, Palin had become primarily a celebrity endorser for various other "Tea Party" standard bearers — Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, T.W. Shannon in Oklahoma — because she has shown so little interest in running for office herself. She wants to be very much a public figure — on reality TV and news programs and magazine covers — without becoming some kind of public servant.

Palin entered public service a decade ago seemingly fired by public spiritedness. As mayor of Wasilla, she established herself as a populist and reformer, enabling her improbable and rapid rise to the governorship of Alaska in 2006.

Two years later, she became a public figure in a way perhaps no one else has ever experienced. Elevated overnight to the national ticket, Palin redefined the role of the running mate and became the cutting edge of John McCain's presidential campaign. All the media wanted Sarah, from CBS to Runners' World to Saturday Night Live. And she sat for them all.

Having lived on this media mountaintop for a fleeting moment, Palin had to trudge back to Alaska and the routines of state government. Her very notoriety continued to distract her. So after a few months back in Juneau, she resigned in the midst of her term. She flirted with the notion of a presidential candidacy in 2012 but never made serious preparations for one. She had the opportunity to run for the Senate this year and let it go by.

At this point, though she is still addressed as "Governor Palin," it is hard to imagine her seeking an actual public office again. Still a public figure with a universally recognized brand, she seems unsure about how to use her assets. She has hinted at leaving the GOP altogether — much as Pat Buchanan did after his thwarted candidacies in the 1990s.

This week's events suggest Palin's brand of politics and personality still has some of that 2008 potency. More than Buchanan, she could bedevil her erstwhile party as an independent candidate in some future race. That is, if the public figure is seriously interested in another public office.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.
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