I am not a Sarah Palin hater. As an Alaska native, I have some appreciation for the political skill needed to knock off Frank Murkowski and Tony Knowles in the same election - political skill that simply isn't possessed by idiots. And I've watched with admiration as she has continually kept herself in the news while shaping the national conversation in subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) ways. But over the last several months, Palin's unique brand of activism seems to have shifted - whether consciously or unconsciously - towards the will of the Republican Establishment.
Consider: Palin's first break with grassroots/TEA Party orthodoxy came during the 2010 elections, when she endorsed establishment candidates Carly Fiorina and Kelly Ayotte over more conservative challengers Chuck Devore and Ovide Lamontagne. These moves were defended by Palin's legion of loyalists as "smart political choices," the reasoning being that Fiorina and Ayotte were the most conservative candidates who stood a reasonable chance of winning the general election. However, whatever the merit of this defense, it certainly did not apply consistently to Palin's endorsements in 2010, as she nearly simultaneously endorsed the quixotic and doomed candidacy of Christine O'Donnell over Mike Castle in Delaware.
In 2011, Palin's actions have trended more towards the wishes of the establishment. Palin has made absolutely no moves that are consistent with a candidate that is actually preparing to run for the presidency that I am aware of. She has hired no field staff, has put no organization on the ground in IA, NH, or SC, has not met with the big ticket donors that could kick off a campaign (especially relevant since Palin doesn't have a large cache of personal wealth to draw from), and hasn't to my knowledge had meetings with any of the state and county-level power brokers in these states to discuss their willingness to help her potential candidacy. All of the evidence thus far points inescapably to the conclusion that Sarah Palin is not running for President - or that if she is running for President, she does not intend to run the sort of campaign that is actually designed to win the nomination. And yet, she patently refuses to give an unequivocal answer as to whether she will run or not, leaving her most dedicated supporters in a position that they do not feel comfortable openly joining and volunteering for another Presidential campaign.
The end result of this equivocation is that a number of insurgent outsider campaigns (probably most notably Michele Bachmann's) have been running without the full strength of TEA Party backing that they would otherwise enjoy if Palin had declared that she wasn't running back in March. Her decision to upstage the insurgent campaigns of Bachmann, Paul and Pawlenty at the Ames poll by showing up and stoking the fires of speculation regarding her candidacy yet further at what was supposed to be a big win for at least one "outsider" campaign was the greatest gift the Republican establishment could have hoped for. Ironically, if Sarah Palin does decide to run, she will ultimately accomplish nothing other than completely sucking the wind out of almost all the non-Romney campaign operations on the ground.
In her latest pro-establishment move, Palin has issued a non-endorsement endorsement of Orrin Hatch in Utah. Palin's comments on Hatch were characteristically canny, in that she refused to come out and officially endorse Hatch, which might alienate some of her base of support. However, at the same time it gives Hatch great press and shielding from the right, and signals pretty clearly that she will not be officially endorsing Chaffetz or any other TEA Party favorite in Utah.
In this instance, Palin doesn't even have the excuse that she is endorsing the most conservative candidate that can win in the general; Utah is such a solidly Republican state that whoever wins the Republican nomination will be all but certain to win the general election. Palin's deliberate shielding of Hatch serves no purpose but to ingratiate the Republican establishment who is terrified of the wave of conservative/TEA Party challengers in safe red states.
Because I believe that Sarah Palin is actually very politically savvy, I have to believe that she knows exactly what she is doing with these moves, and that their consequences are intended. It therefore saddens me to find that one of the party's most effective outsider voices is now being used so effectively to serve undeserving insiders.