04/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Palin's Saturday Night Live

If you didn't watch Sarah Palin's speech at the National Tea Party Convention on Saturday night, you should definitely give it a gander. It was in some respects an unprecedented opportunity for her: a prepared text (obviously her best format), but not one scripted by a campaign (unlike her 2008 Republican Convention address), and guaranteed major media attention. As a private citizen, she was in a position to say pretty much whatever she wanted. Yes, the venue was a bit tricky, because of the widespread criticism of the Tea Party Convention itself, but not remotely as perilous as her resignation speech as governor of Alaska.

She used her own Saturday Night Live opportunity to perform four tasks: general cheerleading for the Tea Party Movement (while making it clear the immediate venue and the controversial for-profit organization that sponsored it was a small piece of that Movement); a quick tour d'horizon of global hot spots to begin addressing one of her most glaring weaknesses, a lack of foreign policy chops; an assortment of crowd-pleasing snarky attacks on the Obama administration, not very original but pretty well-delivered; and an extremely conventional recitation of time-honored conservative themes, punctuated by ritual invocations of the Holy Name of Ronald Reagan.

Anyone who thinks the Tea Party Movement is vastly at odds with the dominant conservative wing of the Republican Party should observe that this speech could have been delivered at a Lincoln Day dinner pretty much anywhere in the country, and would have received the same rapturous audience reaction.

Indeed, the speech is a good illustration of why Palin creates such dramatically different perceptions among different groups of politically active people. To most progressives, every other line in the speech was something of a howler, thanks to the exceptionally unselfconscious way in which she glides over self-contradictions. She genuflected at the altar of constitutional supremacy even as she mocked the president as a law professor. She called for a radical attack on budget deficits while she demanded more tax cuts, often in the same sentence. She repeatedly assaulted the lack of transparency in Democratic policy formulation, but failed to offer any policy prescriptions other than minor (and frankly, stupid) conservative pet rocks like interstate health insurance sales or her own well-rehearsed pet rock of expanding fossil-fuel exploration. She redundantly assailed Wall Street bailouts that she endorsed when they were actually happening. And with every breath, she posed as just another citizen-activist fighting against political elites and media persecution, even though she was a professional politician lifted from obscurity by Washington-based Republican political professionals and then made a national celebrity by constant media attention.

But to conservative ideologues, Palin is simply expounding Revealed Truth, in the uncomplicated manner attributed to the sainted Reagan, and her red meat attacks on Democrats, her allusions to persecution by "elites," and her pose of independence from the GOP establishment, are all projections of their own feelings, cultivated over many years.

And that's why having watched Palin's act in Nashville, I disagree more strongly than ever with those who assert she can't possibly launch a viable campaign for the presidency in 2012. No, I don't think she will be elected president, but yes, I think it's possible she could win the Republican nomination.

To assess this question, you have to appreciate the psychology of movement conservatives at this particular moment of political history. Most of them have believed all along that there is a "hidden majority" of conservatives in America that can only be crystallized by the most rigorous conservative candidates and messages. After 1964, at least, conservatives have attributed every single Republican presidential defeat to a combination of RINO machinations, "moderate" policy prescriptions, and an unwillingness to exploit the opposition's vulnerability by any means necessary--all mistakes imposed by Republican "elites" who contemptuously betray conservative interest groups and causes. These are the kind of people who started showing up at McCain rallies in the autumn of 2008 to upbraid their candidate for failing to talk about Jeremiah Wright and ACORN, and who empathized viscerally with Palin's public frustration about the campaign's unwillingness to "take the gloves off" (a frustration she alluded to in her Nashville speech).

I don't think most progressives fully appreciate how vindicated conservative activists feel right now. Since the 2008 elections, their party has executed the most remarkable turn away from the political center any losing party has probably ever undertaken. RINOs have been intimidated and silenced; Republican Members of Congress have been whipped into highly disciplined submission; policy positions on issues ranging from health care to climate change to foreign policy that were highly respectable in GOP circles just a few years ago are now "socialist" anathema. And in consolidation of earlier conservative victories within the GOP, legalized abortion is now almost universally considered murder; "moral relativism," including homosexuality, is regarded as an abomination inflicted on a suffering "real American" population by decadent elites in Sodom and Gomorrah enclaves on the coasts; and any suggestion that Islamic jihadism is less than an Cold War-level existential threat is treated as "hate-America" semi-treason.

And lo and behold, even as Republicans finally take hard-core conservative advice, their electoral prospects are blossoming. A Tea Party ally has won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat! Even liberal media villains expect a big Republican victory in 2010! With every day, more American are beginning to blame Obama and the Democrats for the economic crisis, and Republican discipline in the Senate ensures he can't do much about it. And moreover, the most vibrant popular political movement in the country, the Tea Party Movement, is pushing Republicans (and perhaps the country) even further to the right, aiding materially not only in the savaging of Obama, but in the ongoing purge of RINOs and "moderate" squishes.

This is the context within which any assessment of Sarah Palin's immediate political future needs to be conducted. It's a context in which vast and largely sympathetic media coverage is devoted to an amateurish, financially-questionable convention in Nashville where people like Tom Tancredo and Roy Moore really don't stand out. It's a context where Sarah Palin is firmly in the mainstream.

So why wouldn't this sudden mega-celebrity, who believes her career is the object of divine favor, and who is surrounded constantly with adulation made even more intense by any mockery of her misteps, run for president? Why not take a chance on completely eclipsing Mike Huckabee and utterly destroying Tim Pawlenty in the Right-to-Life dominated caucuses in Iowa, a state where a new Des Moines Register poll shows one-third of all voters supporting the Tea Party Movement?

That's all a long way off, and a lot could change. 2010 may not after all represent the great gittin' up morning that conservatives expect. At some point, conservative activists may finally get tired of Palin's maddening lack of specificity, or tumble to the fact that Democratic horror of Palin does not actually represent fear of her general-election appeal. Maybe she really doesn't want anything other than her current level of fame or her very manageable political work-load. And perhaps her fans will find a new, or old, champion (her Fox colleague Glenn Beck, for example, seems to think Rick Santorum is The Bomb).

But it's far past time to stop pretending that Palin is just a joke. If her performance in Nashville was taken seriously by the kind of people who tend to dominate the Republican nominating process--and it was--then she's got a political future that she can only enhance by continuing to pose as the personification of grassroots conservative activism, "you betchas" and all.

This item is crossposted from The Democratic Strategist.