08/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The GOP's Palin Food Fight: Why Now?

GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin discussed her knowledge of Russia and foreign policy last fall with CBS News anchor Katie Couric.

You have to hand it to Sarah Palin. For a sideshow, she's very good at being the center of attention. Even when she doesn't want to be.

She had a few big controversies earlier this year -- her on-again/off-again headlining of the big Republican congressional fundraiser, the soap opera around her pregnant teenage daughter, the usual Alaska stuff -- but she's hit the jackpot this week with a huge food fight among big name Republicans. What's unexamined is this question: Why now?

Vanity Fair ran a long article a few days ago detailing various criticisms of Palin by her former colleagues in the John McCain campaign. But while of great interest to folks who don't like Palin, with some nice detail, it's all familiar material.

Palin's confused first national press conference, held after last November's election.

But that didn't stop Palin's great admirer, neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol, from launching an attack, both in his own writing and in a Politico story, on former John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger campaign director Steve Schmidt, whom he decided to hold responsible for the article. Which is a little strange, as there's really not a shortage of McCainiacs to diss Palin, whose performance as the Arizona senator's running mate was simply disastrous.

So why Kristol's hot reaction? Oddly for a purported intellectual, Kristol is a huge booster of the determinedly anti-intellectual Palin. And Kristol's great friend and fellow neocon Randy Scheuneman, who was McCain's controversial chief foreign policy advisor, is an enemy of Schmidt.

This is a fight between some neocons who still want to promote Palin and their discredited geopolitical agenda against some Republican would-be modernizers and McCain backers who blame Palin for blowing their slim chance against Barack Obama.

Palin's high water mark accepting the Republican nomination for Vice President of the United States.

In the aftermath of the Vanity Fair piece on Palin, in which ranking John McCain aides talked about how difficult she was to deal with, Politico ran a story prompted by the post-VF piece battle between commentator Kristol and Schmidt, who managed Schwarzenegger's landslide re-election and, after working for months without pay as McCain rebuilt his campaign, took it over last summer. The story is long and complex, but worth checking out. What Politico, which is really a conservative publication, doesn't get into is why Kristol launched the attack.

Kristol is upset by two things. One, another blow to the notion of Palin as presidential timber, something he has promoted against all the weight of evidence to the contrary. Two, he hates Schmidt's diminution of longtime Kristol friend Randy Scheuneman, who was McCain's chief foreign policy advisor in the campaign and, more importantly, a longtime neocon advocate who was also the paid lobbyist for the government of Georgia.

Scheuneman's enthusiasm about Georgia may well have prompted that country's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, to foolishly invade the breakaway republic of South Ossetia, thus providing Russia with its pretext to crush the Georgian military and dramatically reassert its dominant role in Russia's periphery. With his paid lobbyist at the side of the Republican nominee for president, Saakashvili probably thought the Republican White House would backstop his idiotic move.

Indeed, McCain promptly declared: "We are all Georgians now!" To which most Americans, as I predicted here on the Huffington Post, said: "Say what?"

The McCain campaign did its best to spin up Palin's thin background in this campaign video.

Once she was picked, Scheuneman became a huge advocate of Palin, who was on foreign policy essentially a neocon tool, having no inherent views or knowledge of her own ("I can see Russia from my house," in Tina Fey's deadly parody). He was suspected by Schmidt of leaking to Kristol and others in their circle of right-wing commentators on Fox News and elsewhere, to the extent that Schmidt ordered an in-house search of staff e-mail.

It's fascinating that Kristol -- who is still very influential in Republican circles, notwithstanding the fact that he's virtually always wrong -- and his allies are so concerned about continuing to promote Palin. After all, Barack Obama's fondest wish in his re-election campaign, almost certainly, would be to run against her.

But Kristol, Scheuneman (who became Palin's greatest champion in the McCain campaign) and other neocons are looking for a horse, their other nags having retired or turned up lame. Palin is lame, too, but she has celebrity and a big standing with the party's grassroots right-wing base.

Schmidt, who helped push the pick as one of a series of Hail Mary passes to keep McCain highly competitive with Obama, which worked for awhile, figures prominently in the Vanity Fair account. Among other things, it recounts a not unfamiliar story of how he had to drop most everything for three days in order to prep her for her debate with Joe Biden. And how most of her other early advocates in the campaign found her impossibly difficult to work with.

Now CBS News has come up with some other internal McCain campaign e-mails. In them, Palin is revealed not only as a dissembler on her husband Todd's membership in the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party but also as someone with poor political judgment, wanting the campaign to deny the obvious about which the press no longer really cared, which would have swung McCain wildly off-message shortly before the election.

Before being picked for the national ticket, Palin talked up "Drill, drill, drill" as the answer for America's energy future in this interview with pundit Larry Kudlow.

It's all a bit sad, really.

That continued to be my take when she briefly seemed to be taking off. I'd spent a few hours looking into her as a possible McCain running mate, which amounted to nothing more than reading several articles about her, watching video footage of her, and recalling Wasilla, which I've actually been to. She struck me as something of a female Elmer Gantry.

Immediately after her big convention speech, which had Team McCain toasting one another and TV anchors wowed, I wrote: "I think in the end Palin is a sideshow, a base play too problematic and extreme to appeal to independents and moderates, a tyro whose politics actually undercuts the positioning John McCain needs to win the election."

She's still a sideshow. But she is a sideshow who transfixes the Republican Party. In large part because she is a willing tool for what remains of a discredited neoconservative tendency -- it was never a movement, because it has no popular base of its own -- that still clings to influence on the right.