When Sarah Palin takes the stage in Des Moines on Friday night to keynote the Iowa Republican Party's Reagan Dinner, she'll send the clearest signal so far that she can see the White House from her home in Wasilla, Alaska.
With C-SPAN planning live coverage of her speech (at 7 p.m. Central time), the former governor has a chance to woo not only Hawkeye voters who will be involved in the first nominating caucuses for 2012, but also a national audience curious about an intriguing figure's future.
For someone who tries to follow and make sense of American political trends, the now-probable run by Palin provokes some questions: Have we seen this movie before? Will the upcoming presidential campaign look strangely like the last one? Not to be impertinent or impolitic, could Sarah Palin be the next Barack Obama?
"History does not repeat itself," Mark Twain is often quoted as saying, "but it does rhyme." Look closely and the rhyme scheme for Palin and Obama is stunningly similar — despite their continent-spanning differences on issues and ideology.
Both figures emerged quickly on the national scene and used their considerable charisma to become media-magnified political celebrities.
Both were tapped to deliver major speeches at national party conventions — Obama's keynote address to Democrats in 2004 and Palin's acceptance of the GOP's vice-presidential nomination in 2008 — and in each case Americans at large took notice of their rhetorical abilities and other qualities.
Both followed up their initial national exposure with well-publicized books to tell the public more about their lives and views. Obama's "The Audacity of Hope" came out in 2006, and Palin's "Going Rogue" was published last year.
Both became nationally recognized as Washington outsiders with limited governmental experience. Obama was an Illinois state senator when he gave his 2004 convention speech, and he was elected to the U.S. Senate later that year. Palin had served less than two years as Alaska's governor before running with John McCain in 2008. Prior to that she'd been mayor of Wasilla for six years.
Both share somewhat exotic backgrounds far removed from the continental United States, with Obama growing up in Hawaii and Palin moving to Alaska as an infant. In addition, out-of-the-ordinary familial circumstances — Obama's bi-racial heritage and the Palin family saga — spark human interest in the two people at the center of the public's political attention.
Finally, in creating their identities within their respective parties, both have positioned themselves in opposition to the existing establishments. Obama had to take on Clinton loyalists among the Democrats to prevail against Hillary Clinton in 2008, while today, Palin is, in part, propelled by the Tea Party movement rather than rank-and-file Republicans.
Are they also very different? Of course. But the parallels are striking and worth identifying. In many respects and assessed objectively, both Obama and Palin are products of a new age that combines politics and the modern media with all their available communication technologies.
Both created followers who are closely connected and willing to work on behalf of emerging and engaging personalities. Experience is less important than excitement, and celebrity sizzle helps, too.
At the beginning with Obama and now with Palin, the perception of being true outsiders becomes a definite advantage, especially when anger among the electorate and a disdain for the status quo define the civic climate.
Back in 2006, another mid-term year, political insiders debated whether Obama, without even a full term in the Senate, was ready for prime-time and a run for the presidency. Many admitted that he'd probably never have an opening, a moment, as the one that existed then — and he decided to toss the dice.
Something similar seems to be happening with Palin today. She's rapidly approaching the moment of a now-or-never decision.
On Friday in Des Moines, she'll bask in the sunny, reflected glory of Ronald Reagan at the "Salute to Freedom" dinner. But in the days and weeks afterward, she'll stand in the clear light of day for Republicans and others to study closely as a potential occupant of the Oval Office.
The country — and the world — will be watching to see whether history rhymes.
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