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The danger of Sarah Palin

With unemployment at 10 per cent and rising, the ultra-conservative “Tea Party” movement is galvanis

It's good to be back. I began my sabbatical from these pages 16 months ago, disenchanted with Obamania, the 17-vehicle Cheney motorcade that held me up every morning on Massachusetts Avenue and the increasingly pathetic George W Bush. How distant those days now seem. Ted Kennedy's oratory still regularly soared around a Senate that was split equally between Republicans and Democrats, water-boarding was in full swing in Guantanamo, and a wilting Senator John McCain, already 72, was the only alternative to Barack Obama to become the 44th president of the United States.

Today, the Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate (technically 58, plus two independents who invariably vote with the Democrats), and with it, the potential to sweep through legislation as historic as the Civil Rights Act 1964. But after all the utopian, Obama-inspired promises made during the election campaign, the only bill of note they have so far managed to pass is an $871bn health insurance reform - one that still needs to be thrashed out with a sceptical House and will not take effect until 2014.

Changing tides

And Obama himself? I'll resist the temptation to say, "I told you so." But countless election-winning promises - such as his undertaking to shut down Guantanamo by the end of this month - have evaporated into thin air during what, predictably, turned out to be a lacklustre and conventionally right-wing first presidential year. True, he won the Nobel Peace Prize (for not being George W Bush, I suspect), but then he also despatched 47,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan. I'll say no more.

The beneficiaries of the post-Obamania lassitude, amazingly, are turning out to be the Republicans. Rudderless, leaderless and practically broke, they drift helplessly around the political doldrums of early 2010; the coffers of the Republican National Committee plunged from an already measly $22.8m a year ago to $8.7m last November. But at the beginning of the year, Gallup found that a majority of Americans now consider themselves to be what are euphemistically known as "conservatives".

Polls - including a recent survey by the consistently reliable Rasmussen Reports, which had the Republicans 9 points ahead of the Democrats, nationwide - suggest that in the November midterm elections the Republicans could grab back as many as 40 of the 435 House seats and at least one or two governorships and (most crucially of all) destroy the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate majority. This alone has major implications for Obama: even if he has the political will to do so, it would be significantly harder for him to push through any of his promised dramatic "change" policies during the second half of his first (and last?) term in the White House.

There is speculation that Ted Kennedy's old seat of Massachusetts, held by him since 1962, could fall to the Republicans. Voters in the state that gave rise to the epithet "Massachusetts Liberal" now oppose Democrat health plans by 47 to 41 per cent - and yet Obama carried Massachusetts by 26 points.

The moderate Republican candidate, 49-year-old Scott Brown, is closing in on his Democratic opponent, the state's popular (and populist) attorney general, Martha Coakley - and one poll (but only one so far, mind) actually has him inching ahead. The Democrats are so worried that they are sending Bill Clinton to rally the jaded local party.

The political conundrum is that the Democrats are now suffering the fallout from Bush's woeful economic policies and tax cuts. Nobody can blame Obama for the resulting deep recession (although some do), but his $787bn bailout of the banks and ailing car industry in February last year at last gave Republicans the ammunition they had always lacked against the unattackable Obama: that he was a wimpy "big-government socialist", ready to dole out billions of dollars of taxpayers' money.

Palin's progress

The result, encouraged by ever-willing far-right agitators such as Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, has been the creation of the so-called Tea-Party movement - named after the quintessentially American, anti-British, anti-taxes and anti-big government Boston Tea Party revolt of 1773. Early next month, none other than the 45-year-old Palin - an ambitious lady whom you dismiss lightly at your peril - will reportedly earn a six-figure sum as the keynote speaker at the first conference of a new political entity called the "Tea Party Nation" (TPN), at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville.

“We believe in limited government, free speech, the Second Amendment [the right of Americans to carry guns], our military, secure borders and our country," is TPN's one-sentence manifesto. These words are well-chosen triggers to capture the 57.4 per cent of discontented Americans who think that their country is on the "wrong track" (as opposed to only 35.5 per cent who think it's on the right one).

If this sounds like a joke, it isn't. Palin, usually mindful of what she perceives as her need to cultivate the Republican establishment if she is to achieve the unthinkable and become the party's presidential candidate in 2012, turned down an invitation to speak at the more conventional Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington.

The fledgling TPN is run by two rather dodgy Republican lobbyists. (One of them is Howard Kaloogian, who tried to pass off a photograph of Istanbul as being an image of peaceful Baghdad streets when he was running for the House in 2006.) Should the TPN continue to gain traction, expect more Republican heavyweights, such as Marco Rubio of Florida and Gary Johnson of New Mexico, to move in and take over its leadership.

For Palin, highlighting the TPN and snubbing the CPAC was a politically logical calculation: an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 41 per cent of Americans now support the TPN, compared with 35 per cent who prefer the Democrats and 28 per cent the traditional Republicans epitomised by the CPAC. She has also decided to speak at the 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in April.

So who is leading the Republicans these days? The answer: nobody. The former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is the current favourite to be their presidential candidate in 2012, followed by the former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee, Palin (formerly governor of Alaska) and two current governors, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (note that, unlike in the case of Obama, there are no senators in the running), as well as a handful of the usual suspects. All except Palin are keeping a relatively low political profile.

The closest the Republicans have to a leader is Michael Steele, the eccentric chairman of the Republican National Committee. "I'm the guy they're afraid of," he boasts. "I'm a Tea Partier, I'm a grass-roots-er." He predicts that the Republicans will regain complete control of Congress in November, especially if voters read his new book, Right Now: a 12-Step Programme for Defeating the Obama Agenda. "I'm the chairman. Deal with it," is how he brushes off his many critics.

The blurb on the inside flap of Steele's book (now competing for hearts and minds with Sarah Palin's Going Rogue) urges Republicans to rise up against the Obama administration's "attempts to resurrect a discredited brand of extreme liberalism". The publishers succinctly sum up Steele's agenda even further: "The American people don't want socialised health-care 'reform', invasive 'green' initiatives and burdensome new taxes, and Republicans in Washington have to start listening."

They probably will, too, what with all the plotting Tea Partiers, unemployment at 10 per cent and rising, and the potentially incendiary anger that is sweeping across the country and making America's discontented masses ripe targets for the far right this year. And this is happening even though their party is more of a shambles than it has ever been and has done nothing to earn a single vote.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power