DES MOINES — As a chance to evaluate possible 2016 Republican presidential candidates, the Freedom Summit here in Des Moines was a solid success. Several potential candidates — Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and a few others — left the 10-hour political marathon with their prospects undeniably enhanced.
All that was good news for Republicans. But at the same time, more than a few GOP loyalists came away shaking their heads at the performance of a party star, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, whose long, rambling, and at times barely coherent speech left some wondering what role she should play in Republican politics as the 2016 race begins in earnest.
Palin made news when she arrived in Iowa saying she is seriously considering a run for president. In an interview with ABC the day before coming to Iowa, Palin answered "of course" when asked if she is interested in running in 2016. Then, when she arrived at a Des Moines hotel late Friday evening, she told the Washington Post, "Who wouldn't be interested?" Asked to clarify, Palin told the paper, "You can absolutely say that I am seriously interested."
The news, given big play on the Drudge Report, heightened the anticipation of Palin's speech to the Freedom Summit. After all, there were still memories in the crowd of her rousing speech at the 2008 Republican convention. But when Palin took the stage, it was clear this would be no inspiring effort.
First, Palin embarked on an extended stream-of-consciousness complaint about media coverage of her decision to run in a half-marathon race in Storm Lake, Iowa in 2011. She then moved on to grumbling about coverage of a recent photo of her with a supporter who had made a sign saying "Fuc_ you Michael Moore" in reaction to the left-wing moviemaker's criticism of the film "American Sniper." Then it was on to Palin's objections about the social media ruckus over a picture of her six-year-old son Trig standing on the family's Labrador Retriever.
It was all quite petty, and yet the complaining took half of Palin's allotted time. She then proceeded to blow through her time limit with a free-association ramble on Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, the energy industry, her daughter Bristol, Margaret Thatcher, middle-class economics — "the man can only ride ya when your back is bent" — women in politics, and much more. It would be hard to say that Palin's 35-minute talk had a theme, but she did hint that she is interested in running, although there are no indications she has taken any actual steps in that direction.
"Long and disjointed," said one social conservative activist when asked for reaction. "A weird speech," said another conservative activist. "Terrible. Didn't make any sense."
"There was a certain coarseness to her that wasn't there before," said yet another social conservative who noted that some in the crowd were uncomfortable with Palin declarations like, "Screw the left in Hollywood!" (It's not that they like the left in Hollywood — just the opposite — but the crudeness of Palin's expressions turned them off.)
"I know she is popular, but it is hard to take her seriously given that performance," said Sam Clovis, the conservative Iowa college professor, radio commentator, and sometime political candidate. "Palin was a sad story Saturday. With every speech she gives, she gets worse and worse. If one were playing a political cliche drinking game, no one would have been sober after the first 15 minutes of an interminable ramble. It was really painful."
"I think she has a role in the conservative movement and in the party," Clovis continued, "but she needs to get serious about what it is she can contribute and accomplish."
To be fair, it should be noted that Clovis ran in the 2014 Republican Senate primary against Joni Ernst — a race in which Palin endorsed Ernst. (Citizens United, a sponsor of the Freedom Summit, endorsed Clovis.) But Clovis was by no way alone in faulting Palin's performance.
"Calling Gov. Palin's remarks bizarre and disjointed would be charitable," said a well-connected Iowa Republican. "Her shelf-life, even with the most conservative voters in our party, seems to be near the end. In a day filled with strong performances from likely candidates ranging from Scott Walker to Ted Cruz, her remarks were a distraction."
"It was a long and incoherent speech," added Craig Robinson, of the Iowa Republican blog. "At best, there were a few good one-liners." Robinson continued:
Of all the people I talked to about Palin's speech, only one person didn't have a negative reaction. That person basically said it was a typical Sarah Palin speech. It was received poorly by everyone else I spoke with. I'm not comfortable sharing everything I heard about the speech — it was that bad.
No offense to Gov. Palin, but I do think it is problematic to have someone give a speech like that in the midst of a string of serious speeches by people who are seriously thinking about running for president. Palin made a guy like Trump look like a serious presidential candidate today. Incredible.
By the time Palin finished speaking, it was hard for anyone to believe she truly is "seriously interested" in running for president. Palin followed former executive Carly Fiorina, who gave a well-received speech that left many in the audience wanting to hear more. Like any serious would-be candidate, Fiorina had obviously taken care to prepare the best speech she could. The contrast with Palin could not have been clearer.
The experience leaves Iowa Republicans with a lot to think about. Yes, Palin is still a draw. Yes, conservatives still empathize with her over the beating she took from the media in 2008. But if there is indeed nothing behind her "seriously interested" talk — and it appears there is not — should she be included in events leading up to the 2016 caucuses? A lot of GOP activists may come to agree with one of those well-connected Iowa Republicans quoted above, who remarked, "The sooner these forums in Iowa focus on those actually running, the better."