She who can rouse the base like none other is now She To Whom Respect Must Be Paid. Like it or not.
Many within the so-called party establishment don't quite know what to do about Palin. She's adored by tea partiers, to whom she conveniently attached herself as soon as she sensed a shift in the air. A rogue like Palin isn't going to let a rogue movement fill a stadium - or a desert - without her.
She also had some luck with her gambles on midterm endorsements, at least in the U.S. House and a couple of state elections, notably South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley. Palin's Mama Grizzly shtick, which followed her pit bull-with-lipstick shtick, apparently was effective. She had a less-stellar record in the Senate, with only six of her 11 anointed ones winning.
Thus, Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama recently had the audacity to assert what heretofore had been relegated to whispers behind closed doors: "Sarah Palin cost us control of the Senate."
Bachus, who likely will replace Barney Frank as chair of the House Financial Services Committee, noted that Palin endorsed some Senate candidates who couldn't possibly win, such as Christine O'Donnell in Delaware.
O'Donnell, of course, is only the most extreme example of tea party mischief. She didn't have a chance in Haiti of becoming a U.S. senator, but Palin Power put her in the nominee's seat, defeating nine-term establishment candidate Rep. Mike Castle.
Other notable lost seats in states where the establishment candidate might have won include Nevada, where Harry Reid defeated tea party pick Sharron Angle. Conventional wisdom among political veterans is that Angle's primary opponent, Sue Lowden, would have led Reid by 15 points.
Bachus isn't the first to point out the fatal flaw of Tea Party ambition. Karl Rove was vilified for not initially supporting O'Donnell and for criticizing the tea party's principle-over-pragmatism approach. But Bachus may be the highest-ranking member of Congress to confront the obvious. Or to tempt the fates that now await him.
Although Tea Party members tend to be over-45 white males - no implication regarding Palin's popularity intended, but infer at will - there is considerable overlap with the demographic formerly known as the GOP base, aka white Southerners and social conservatives, libertarian streak notwithstanding.
Exhibit A: O'Donnell was once an abstinence counselor.
Exhibit B: Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" religious revival on the National Mall in August.
Exhibit C: Tea party organizer Dick Armey recently said no to "a truce" on abortion and other social issues.
Cutting government spending may be the central mantra of the Tea Party and, increasingly, of Palin. She recently wrote against the QE2 - "quantitative easing" - whereby the Federal Reserve will dump $600 billion freshly minted dollars into circulation in hopes of revving the economy. Doubtless, this inspired critique evolved from Palin's long years poring over The Economist.
But the overlay of social and tea party conservatism is everywhere becoming more defined, and Palin is the intersection of these two ideological sectors. She is now strategically developing the part of her profile that earned her ridicule as a vice presidential candidate.
Watching Palin drop foreign policy and economic nuggets into the twitterverse confirms that the real agenda for Palin is President Palin, and therein lies fresh terror for Republicans. She's too powerful to ignore, and too (fill-in-blank) to take seriously.
She is - in a word yet again whispered rather than uttered - "Dangerous."
Not only would Palin the presidential candidate drive away other Republican candidates, but she would most certainly lose a national election. Thus, the GOP finds itself in a pickle: How to shed itself of this attractive nuisance?
The answer, alas, is the stuff of all complicated relationships: Can't live with her, can't live without her.
Kathleen Parker, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact her at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.