What conservative Sarah Palin does for Republican presidential aspirant Donald Trump
Ted Cruz wants to be a Washington outsider, but Sarah Palin reminds Iowa voters where that really is
Ted Cruz has tried awfully hard to be the best of Washington outsiders.
The Republican Senator from Texas, now presidential candidate, built his name on aggravating the party establishment when he led the politically disastrous government shutdown a couple of years ago.
Some of his colleagues hated him for that. Senator John McCain told Cruz: "Stop, you're wrong, you're crazy!"
But that was exactly what Cruz wanted to hear from a Washington insider like McCain. He liked being the bad boy, and he wore the insults proudly.
As the establishment grudgingly watched, Cruz quickly became the country's best-known Republican freshman on Capitol Hill.
Then, after only two years in the Senate, he launched his presidential campaign as a Christian conservative and — most important — Washington outsider.
For a while the plan unfolded as he'd hoped. Cruz slowly made his way to the front of the Republican race. But then Sarah Palin happened.
Palin has been hanging around the Republican race for months without making much noise.
When she popped up Tuesday, endorsing Donald Trump, the loud bang you heard was a Cruz balloon bursting.
She'd arrived to remind voters that no one knows better than she where "outside Washington" really is.
And apparently it's in Trumpville.
Paradoxically, Palin is a Washington insider's creation. McCain himself lifted her onto the national stage when he picked her as his running mate on the Republican presidential ticket in 2008.
The thought of a vice-president Sarah Palin just "one heartbeat away" from the nuclear launch codes made some Americans jumpy and helped Republicans lose the White House.
Many voters, however, were thrilled to discover she existed.
Since then, she has become a sort of socio-political inkblot test: tell me what you see, and I'll tell you who you are. That's because of moments such as this from the 2008 campaign:
Katie Couric, then anchor of CBS Evening News, asked Palin in an interview which newspapers and magazines she regularly read.
"I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media," said Palin.
"Specifically?" asked Couric, "I'm curious."
Name a few
"All of 'em. Any of 'em that have been in front of me over all these years," said Palin.
"Can you name a few?" Couric persisted.
"I have a vast variety of sources, where we get our news," said the former Alaska governor.
And then she decided she'd had enough.
"Alaska isn't a foreign country," she bristled. "It's kind of suggested it seems like, 'Wow! How could you keep in touch with [what] the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking and doing when you live up there in Alaska?'"
Some saw a candidate for high office struggling and failing to prove that she actually bothered to read the front page of a newspaper once in a while.
For them, Palin was a joke.
Others saw an unpretentious, folksy straight talker deftly shrugging off a "gotcha'" headlock from a smarty-pants, media diva.
For them Palin was a champion.
It seemed that to "get" her you had to understand what she was saying, and that was harder for some than for others.
That's happening again, as pundits and tweeters go over Palin's performance endorsing Trump on Jan. 19. An "alliance between a vulgar talking yam and Princess Dumbass of the Northwoods," said one.
No one "gets it" like she does, said Donald Trump. More important, Trump knows that a lot of Iowa Republicans "get" her, too.
The notion that Palin gives Trump some extra bona fides as a conservative is probably beside the point.
True, she's strongly anti-abortion, and that has earned her enthusiastic and valuable approval from evangelicals, but voters likely know that neither Trump nor Palin is as hard-core conservative as Cruz.
What Republicans who "get" her like about Palin is the same thing they seem to like about Trump: Both howl that the country just doesn't work the way they believe it once did and still should.
It's the inner thing that swells up when Trump says, "What the hell is going on?"
Besides being a high-profile Republican woman, Palin brings to Trump's campaign her personal guarantee that he really is what he says he is.
Cruz can match the passion and the anger, but he's not as good with the magic Trump and Palin have for non-specific, open-ended language that connects to the angst of the low-information, middle-aged white people who are flocking to them.
"Are you ready to make America great again?" they ask, and it means whatever their audience wants it to mean.
She can pick a winner
At his core, Cruz is the guy who was studying Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman when he was just 13. He's the guy who eagerly dived into the weeds of "constitutional textualism" when he was at Princeton and Harvard universities.
Esoteric passions such as those would hardly feel like a shot of adrenalin to a Trump/Palin audience. More like a tranquillizer dart.
So Cruz could have really used Palin's support. And consequently, just by turning away from Cruz she's done plenty for Trump.
Plus, as one talking head on cable news said Tuesday night, Palin adds fun to a campaign that already looked like fun.
Or as Cruz said of Palin after she endorsed him for Senate in 2012, "She knows how to pick winners."