Sarah Palin's decision to sign a multiyear contract to be a regular "contributor" for the Fox News Channel is a betrayal of her supporters. The decision also sounds the death knell of her political career.
Mrs. Palin joins a growing list of Republicans who are Fox analysts - Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Dick Morris (who also worked for President Clinton) and Dana Perino. This will make the 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate a celebrity; it also will provide a handsome paycheck on top of the huge sums of money she has made from her best-selling memoir, "Going Rogue."
If Mrs. Palin's goal is to provide a lavish income for her large family, perhaps she has made the right move. However, if the former Alaska governor is considering a credible run for the 2012 presidential election, she has made a fatal mistake. She has chosen personal enrichment instead of principles and party.
Mrs. Palin's appeal lies in her populism. She represents the cultural values of Middle America. She is a pro-life social conservative who champions gun rights and limited government. She is unabashedly patriotic and strongly supports the military.
She is a hockey mom with five children - someone who rose from humble origins. She possesses a bachelor's degree from the University of Idaho (known as Potato U.). Mrs. Palin climbed to the top based on self-reliance and traditional frontier individualism. She is not a Bush or a Kennedy; her success does not depend on wealth or power.
She won election as the mayor of her hometown by running as a maverick reformer. In the gubernatorial race for Alaska, she defeated the incumbent in the Republican primary and a former governor in the general election. Once in office, she challenged the venal Republican establishment - and won. Mrs. Palin slashed taxes, cut spending and battled crony capitalism. She stood up to ExxonMobil Corp. and other large oil companies.
As Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential running mate, she energized the Republican base, especially conservatives. Mrs. Palin's great strength was precisely what made her so despised by the liberal media: her anti-elitism. Her candidacy tapped into potent reformist forces that rightly believe the political status quo is rigged, hopelessly corrupt and unsustainable. The fact that she is not a cosmopolitan policy wonk with an Ivy League degree and ties to the Eastern establishment is what endears her to many in the heartland. She speaks for them; she is them.
Mrs. Palin is not a traditionalist conservative in the mold of Robert Taft, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Those leaders had blueprints for rolling back the New Deal welfare state. Rather, she embodies right-wing identity politics, whose appeal is mainly to working-class and lower-middle-class white Christians. She is a modern-day William Jennings Bryan, a prairie populist opposed to plutocracy, entrenched special interests and Eastern elitism.
Yet, for all her common touch and folksy mannerisms, Mrs. Palin - like Bryan at the turn of the 20th century - cannot hide a seminal reality: She is out of her league on the national stage. To be a genuine populist requires that she not only know the people's common interests, but be better informed, more politically savvy and steadfast in the defense of core principles than they are. Successful populism requires enlightened elite leadership.
This is what Mrs. Palin lacks. It is one thing to be the mayor of Wasilla or the governor of Alaska; it is quite another to be the leader of a broad-based ideological movement. The problem with Mrs. Palin is not her views - and certainly not her middle-American background. Instead, it is her incompetence and poor judgment.
She has made serious mistakes. During the 2008 campaign, her interview with Katie Couric was a disaster. For all her leftist bias, Miss Couric asked softball questions. When Mrs. Palin was asked, "What magazines and newspapers do you read?" her response was pathetic: "All of them."
Moreover, Mrs. Palin's decision to step down as Alaska's governor before completing her term was a betrayal of the state's voters (and her supporters). It also showed that she was not willing to finish what she started. In the face of nasty liberal attacks and multiple frivolous lawsuits, Mrs. Palin capitulated. Compare this to Reagan during his tenure as governor of California. The Gipper served two full terms while standing up to antiwar radicals and a leftist smear campaign.
Mrs. Palin claimed that, once liberated from the shackles of office, she would be free to campaign on behalf of conservative candidates and rebuild the Republican Party. She presented herself as the avatar of the conservative movement - just as Richard Nixon helped to revive the party in the wake of Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 landslide victory or as Reagan galvanized Republicans following Jimmy Carter's 1976 election triumph.
Nixon and Reagan, however, mobilized the Republican Party's rank and file the old-fashioned way: through sheer hard work. They spent years in the political wilderness, fundraising and giving speeches at local Republican clubs and in church basements and town halls. They were serious about politics - which is why they built majority coalitions.
Mrs. Palin is not demonstrating the same resolve. She is a product of our narcissistic celebrity culture. Instead of doing the heavy (and unglamorous) political lifting required of a national leader, she is embracing the luxurious life of a TV talking head. She has abandoned the very basis of her populist legitimacy: her outsider status.
For all her sound and fury - and at a moment of American crisis - Mrs. Palin has fatally chosen a conventional and lackluster path: to become an integral part of the media class. Her mystique will evaporate as she becomes overexposed and too familiar to be enchanting. Rather than going rogue, she has gone establishment.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute, a Washington think tank. He is the daily radio host of "The Kuhner Show" on WTNT 570-AM (www.talk570.com) from noon to 3 p.m.