I’m Still Here

Sarah Palin, still not running for president, writes the GOP’s campaign theme for it.

MANCHESTER, N.H.—”As much as the media would try to ignore the fact,” says Sarah Palin, “it was Tea Party Americans who won the November election!”

This is what the media ignoring the Tea Party looks like: Palin is speaking to a crowd of maybe 700 people. Every protester holding a reasonably witty or weird sign—or a sign with Sarah Palin’s visage on it—is being interviewed by a reporter. There are at least 50 of us looking for quotes. CNN is taking the event live, and the Tea Party Express, which put on the event, is raffling tickets to the presidential debate it’s going to co-sponsor in seven days with that network.

Sarah Palin addresses a Tea Party rally in Manchester, N.H., on Labor Day

Palin can’t acknowledge this. The media is still lying. It’s still missing the point. The point is whatever she and Tea Party activists say it is.

“You already withstood the wrath, and the disdain, and the lies, from the media,” says Palin, “and the permanent political class looking down on us, mocking us, makin’ things up about us!”

Among the things we are making up, apparently, is a dispute between Palin and some fellow Republicans. You can see where we got the idea. On Saturday, with even more reporters in tow, Palin spoke in Indianola, Iowa, where some of her fans hoped she’d announce a presidential campaign. She didn’t, but she did go after some of the Republicans who’d made the race.

“Some GOP candidates also raised mammoth amounts of cash,” she’d said in Iowa, “and we need to ask them, too: What, if anything, do their donors expect in return for their ‘investments?’ We need to know this because our country can’t afford more trillion-dollar ‘thank you’ notes to campaign backers.” She said something else that reporters—those mendacious ignore-ers of the Tea Party—had quoted all weekend. “It’s not enough to just change up the uniform. If we don’t change the team and the game plan, we won’t save our country.”

Today, a different take: “We patriots should not focus on petty political squabbles and media sound bites.” Those sound bites! That media! What was their problem, anyway?

The people who showed up to see Palin were not checking her speech for consistency. They realized that they were watching someone who will never become president of the United States–sort of a departure in New Hampshire. The reasons they gave for that realization ranged from blaming the media, blaming Palin, or discovering that they liked some other candidates more than her. Like her, though, the media rage was most important. The press had ruined Palin’s image in a way that it never would have, or could have, ruined Barack Obama’s.

“I never thought George W. Bush was lying to me,” says one activist, John Miller. “This guy, I feel like he’s lying to me every time he talks.” The media won’t report the truth, he says, on stories like the EPA’s implementation of cap and trade even after that legislation croaked in the Senate. (This isn’t quite happening.)

Bill Hudak, a Republican candidate for Congress in Massachusetts, watches Palin closely and gets backstage to meet her when she finishes. When he ran in 2010, he says, he was pilloried by the media, so he gets what’s happening to her.

“It’s very personality-based with her,” he says. “Liberals attack her because she’s a threat.”

True: Liberals attack Palin from every angle. She looks less like a candidate than she ever has, but she irritates them like no one else. A retiree named Jane Davis–she worked for Manchester’s legendary Merrimack Diner before it shuttered–sidles up to me during the speech to inform me of how uncomfortable she is.

“I told the cops that if they find me dead, Palin did it,” she says. She also says that she wants Palin to be the GOP’s nominee, because she’d be so easily defeated. “Her or Bachmann, if it’s up to me.”

This combination–conservative quasi-martyrdom, liberal obsession–means that Palin gets a national audience for everything she says. What is she using it for, if she doesn’t run? It’s hard to tell in Manchester, even if you discount the weird walkback from the Iowa speech. Palin makes no mention of the Democratic Party, only Washington elites. (In Iowa, it was “Georgetown.”) This is the sort of blurry political language that Democrats whine about when Barack Obama uses it, saying he’s not explaining what the political stakes are. Here, as in Iowa, she calls for the crowd to “refudiate crony capitalism.” That’s a bugaboo that voters know with a name that sticks like peanut butter. But who, specifically, is practicing it?

“Perry’s up to his eyeballs in it,” says Fran Wurtele, listening intently.

That’s the essence of a good attack—the crowd knows whose house to storm with pitchforks before you hand them the maps. As much as Palin staggers over the map, the attack points out just how many openings Barack Obama’s Democrats have made for the GOP. Americans don’t instinctively want to blame “corporations” for what’s gone wrong, but they can blame government-business collusion. And they’re angry when they think that Barack Obama is scaring jobs away by criticizing business—high corporate profits don’t calm them down any.

“I warn ya that the cynics, the elites, they’re gonna keep mocking you,” she says. “They’re gonna keep making things up about independent, conscientious Americans just concerned with protecting our Constitution, not letting our country go bankrupt. They’re gonna keep mocking you. But you know what? Throughout history, the cynics, the naysayers, they always denounce those who have stood for truth and fought for what is right. When Abe Lincoln led, they mocked him and ridiculed him. It was the elites of his day saying that he was a clown, a hick, a fool that was unfit for office!”

Is this a hint? No: The crowd chants “Run, Sarah, Run!” and she only smiles and says “I appreciate your encouragement.” She leaves the stage, shakes some hands and signs some books, then dives into a waiting SUV.

A short walk away, there are slightly disappointed faces among some Palin fans. The New Hampshire branch of Organize4Palin, an ad hoc draft-her group, has teamed up with Students4Palin to staff a booth with Palin lit and ads for the little-watched Palin documentary The Undefeated. It would have been nice for Palin to come by and see them, they say. But they get it.

“She wants to run and be beholden to no one,” says O4P’s Steve Brennan.

And if she doesn’t run? Well, would she be saying anything different?