There's a great scene toward the end of HBO's Game Change, the controversial and shamelessly entertaining movie about Sarah Palin and the 2008 presidential campaign, starring Julianne Moore as the Wasilla Windbag. A few of John McCain's advisers hit the hotel bar on Election Eve, drowning their sorrows, cursing the day Palin came on board to capsize the campaign. Woody Harrelson, as McCain's top strategist, Steve Schmidt, complains that it wasn't a campaign at all – it was just a "reality show."
Hey, welcome to 1992, Einstein. The subtext of Game Change is not simply that political campaigns have turned into reality shows – it's that they've turned into crappy reality shows. Palin didn't blow it as a national politician because she was too reality-TV; she wasn't reality-TV enough. She didn't have the stamina, the patience or the adaptability, which means her skills were strictly amateur-level. If she had a little more of Khloe Kardashian's will to power, she might have stood a chance.
Game Change begins in the summer of 2008, with McCain's team trying to get a grip on Barack Obama's popularity. "If he heals a sick baby," says McCain, played by Ed Harris, "we're really fucked." Schmidt fumes, "This man is on the cover of every news magazine – he's on the cover of every entertainment magazine." (Hey, don't look at us, pal. We put Howard Dean on the cover too.)
Once McCain's people decide they need an Obama of their own, they find Palin on YouTube – the same way Journey found their new lead singer – pluck her from obscurity and whisk her onto the national stage, like so many overnight TV sensations before her. At first, the McCain staffers are in awe of their new find, raving that she's "the greatest actress in American politics." When they learn she's clueless about government and foreign policy (upon being informed Germany was our enemy in WWII, she enthuses, "Flipping awesome!"), they rejigger their strategy to fit what they see as her strengths. "She's a great actress, right?" Schmidt says. "Why don't we just give her some lines?"
As long as the camera is on her, she's on – as they say, "She's a red-light performer." But as the campaign wears on, and her intellectual flaws are exposed, she falls into a catatonic daze. It turns out the day-to-day strain of a campaign is not the right kind of gig for a red-light performer, since politicians have to be on even when the camera goes off. Moore's performance becomes riveting as Palin unravels into phone-throwing fits and silent stupors. The meltdown scenes are harrowing: When she falls apart trying to prepare for her debates, and she just sits there twitching helplessly, it's like watching Moore in the Boogie Nights cocaine-binge scene where Rollergirl asks her to be her mother.
Having seemingly learned nothing from the Palin fiasco, the Republicans have turned the 2012 campaign into the same loser reality-TV show. Donald Trump, Herman Cain and all those debates became an extended goof of Survivor starring a wacky bunch of contestants who keep pissing one another off. And even if they realize they're crippling themselves with these TV gaffes, they keep showing up, because they can't walk away from a camera.
Palin has dismissed Game Change, and said she isn't going to watch. That's not how politicians talk. That's not how reality-TV stars talk, either. That's the grumbling of an amateur, somebody like Kim Kardashian's ex-husband's mom. Reality TV has gotten a lot more sophisticated in the past four years – but as this crop of Republican candidates keep showing us, politicians haven't. They didn't learn a thing by watching Palin bomb. You can see why people mean it as an insult when they refer to Palin as a reality-TV star. But calling her a reality star is giving her a compliment she hasn't earned.
This story is from the March 15th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.