Palin and Trump: It’s complicated

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and businessman Donald Trump have formed a political bond, one united by their populist ideology and contempt for the mainstream media.

Their kinship grew during the height of the birther controversy. As Trump called on President Obama to release his birth certificate, Palin rose to Trump’s defense, excoriating the press.

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She blamed the media, not Trump, for the business mogul’s fixation on birtherism, telling Fox News: “Donald Trump is the one being really treated unfairly, I’d say … in the press when they’re hammering him about the one issue … he’s merely answering reporters’ questions about his view on the birth certificate.”

To Palin, Trump’s crusade was merely a curiosity stoked by the media.

“The media is loving the fact that some curious Americans are actually asking the questions, and they’re trying to make those curious Americans sound kind of crazy,” she said about the birther movement one day before Obama released his long-form certificate.

When Obama released it, Palin promptly credited Trump for the action, tweeting, “Media, admit it, Trump forced the issue.”

For his part, Trump reveled in the attention Palin helped bring, telling The Wall Street Journal that she was “so gracious to me on the birther issue. I mean, she really thought that I was doing a great service.”

For better or worse, Palin has attached her seal of approval more clearly to the Trump phenomenon than any other potential presidential candidate.

This is surprising — not just because it’s a controversial link, but also because the two share an ideological base, and in a normal political universe, that means they’d be natural foes when competing in a zero-sum game.

Yet Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak says that hasn’t exactly happened. 

“They appeal to the same segment of the base, but rather than compete, they are holding hands.”

For Trump, an association with Palin has obvious benefits. She has a rabid fan base, more political experience, a more serious mien, and a legion of followers who, ideologically, line up with Trump. Palin’s seal of approval is a powerful one, and if she vouches for someone, others often follow.

But it’s a risky prospect for Palin. Most think that her association with Trump can only hurt her, but others see value for her — not because they think Trump is formidable, but precisely because they think he isn’t.

So is her link with him harmful or helpful?

Harmful:

Those subscribing to this theory think Palin sullies her reputation by praising Trump. 

Fox political analyst and Daily Beast columnist Kirsten Powers draws the link.

“She has a real following; he is a circus act. She doesn’t need him; he is the one who benefits from the alliance. She diminishes herself when she associates herself with this kind of hateful crap,” Powers said.

Further, Powers says her fellow Alaskan “needs to take her responsibility more serious and not get down in the mud with people like Donald Trump.” 

The essence of the argument is the proverbial saying that bad company corrupts good values. Or in this case, good political fortunes.

Helpful:

There are those who think Palin would actually benefit from a Trump presidential bid. At first glance, that appears ridiculous. 

According to polls, Palin’s and Trump’s support overlaps. That means there’s a limited number of votes from which both draw, and theoretically, each would fare worse with the other in the race.

But that ignores a counterintuitive dynamic that might emerge and lift Palin outside her base and more firmly into the mainstream. 

By all accounts, Trump is a celebrity first, politician second. If he entered the field, he’d be The Political Celebrity — the ultimate sideshow. Suddenly, Palin’s experience as governor of Alaska might look more impressive.

One GOP consultant, who asked not to be identified, described the heart of the argument: Trump’s entry, he said, “positions Sarah Palin closer to the establishment intelligentsia than otherwise possible.”

When presented against the backdrop of Trump and his orange mane, Palin might look more electable and serious.

“To the average voter who finds Palin an exceptionally polarizing and equally unprepared presidential suitor, the former Alaska governor doesn’t seem quite so bad when opposite the sheer vulgarity of Trump,” the consultant pointed out.

Indeed, if it’s clear that the conservative base isn’t going to let an establishment candidate win, then they could be drawn into the arms of Palin when confronted by the specter of Trump. It’s an admittedly unlikely scenario, but the logic of contrasts makes sense. 

Palin’s controversial statements look positively pedestrian when compared to Trump’s call for seizing Iraqi oil, cutting off all aid to Pakistan and imposing 25 percent tariffs on China. 

Suddenly, mistaking “refudiate” for “repudiate” — as Palin did last year — seems far less noteworthy, and Palin herself more electable. 

The question is whether she can avoid descending into Trump’s sensationalism and separate herself from him, thereby mainstreaming herself.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.