Sarah Palin created a stir in Maryland last week by endorsing virtually unknown gubernatorial candidate Brian Murphy in the Republican primary, and the first person I thought about was neither Bob Ehrlich nor Martin O'Malley. It was Jesse Jackson.
It seems like ancient history now, but only two years ago Mr. Jackson was inadvertently caught on tape saying — and I'll use family-friendly language here — that he wanted to cut off certain reproductive parts of Barack Obama's anatomy because he believed the then-Democratic presidential nominee was guilty of "talking down to black folks."
Although a longtime resident of Chicago whose son represents a congressional district there, Mr. Jackson was never very close to the Obamas. The product of an earlier political generation, the civil-rights-era veteran was more closely connected to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Given that Mr. Obama, then still a U.S. senator, had already reached higher electoral heights than Mr. Jackson ever will, one caught a palpable whiff of professional jealousy in the reverend's remarks, for which he promptly apologized.
Mr. Jackson's blunder proved to be such a great stroke of luck for Mr. Obama that the future president couldn't have planned the episode better himself. The good reverend was and still is a very polarizing figure in American politics. On balance, Mr. Obama's association with black preachers hurt him more than it helped him in 2008. But his troubling association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was leavened somewhat by the news of Mr. Jackson's apparent disregard for Mr. Obama. Sometimes politicians are lucky in their enemies.
Likewise, Mr. Ehrlich is fortunate that Ms. Palin poked her nose into Maryland's political tent to endorse Mr. Murphy. In doing so, the ex-governor who last year abandoned her post in Juneau became a useful foil for the former governor who would like this year to recapture his post in Annapolis.
In her 88-word endorsement of Mr. Murphy, issued via Facebook, Ms. Palin wrote: "Brian is a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment commonsense conservative and a firm believer in the free market and the cause for energy independence … Brian will provide Maryland with principled and results oriented leadership."
Notice the key buzzwords of invidious criticism for Mr. Ehrlich that the former vice presidential nominee crammed into her short statement: pro-life, pro-gun, conservative and, perhaps most damning, principled. The subtext is clear: Mr. Ehrlich is a wishy-washy moderate, a dastardly member of that species known as the RINO — a Republican In Name Only.
Mr. Ehrlich said the snub didn't matter, but he knows better and ought to be giddy. Ms. Palin would have done far more harm to his candidacy by endorsing him, and if anything she gave Mr. Ehrlich the opportunity to polish his preferred image as a non-ideological pragmatist.
Look at the damage Ms. Palin is doing elsewhere. Her "mama grizzly" endorsements of female candidates often backfire. Most notably, her backing of Nevada senate challenger Sharron Angle actually revived Senate majority leader Harry Reid's once-dismal prospects for re-election. In last week's Tennessee Republican primaries, another Palin-endorsed female U.S. House candidate went down in flames.
You read that right, folks — Tennessee. If Ms. Palin is proving to be a liability (or at least not an asset) in parts of Red America, she darn sure wasn't going to help Mr. Ehrlich here in one of the bluest sates on the electoral map.
Ms. Palin has done Mr. Ehrlich a great favor. Whatever support he may lose from Palin-loving conservatives during September's primary will be more than compensated by votes he stands to gain in November from Maryland voters who distrust her.
With some of the highest negative approval ratings of any national politician, the unavoidable truth is that Sarah Palin is more of a curse than a blessing for most Republicans. She will be neither the next president nor even the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. She's already a national celebrity and cultural icon. Running and winning is the only way to improve upon that — and yet, ironically, also the only way she might destroy that iconic identity.
I predict she won't run in 2012, a choice that liberates her to be meddlesome. My presumption may prove wrong, but her willingness to knock over the furniture by party-crashing in Maryland and other states only makes me more confident about her designs for 2012.
The era of "Run, Jesse, Run" has passed, and the chants of "Run, Sarah, Run" too shall eventually and blessedly fade into history. But for now, the best response to Mrs. Palin for most Republicans is to run away from her.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.