CNN asked me to write an opinion piece on how a Sarah Palin campaign — or lack of one — would impact the Republican nomination race.  Instead of hitting that directly, I decided to write an analysis of what Palin has accomplished with her bus tour and how it will impact the race regardless of whether she decides to run in 2012 at all, and CNN graciously published it this morning:

The media turned Palin’s bus tour into a celebrity chase, instead of covering it as a political event. As a political event, Palin’s travelogues show that it’s been pretty low-key. She has not made grand speeches or committed to a campaign, but instead is using the tour to raise political action committee funds — in the same way other announced and unannounced candidates have done for months, with little or no comparable national media coverage.

So why does Palin rate such a press gaggle and make headlines for her tour? Palin generates ratings and page views; she sells advertising. She puts money in the pockets of media outlets. And her bus tour has exposed the media’s craving for all things Palin, even while they treat her as a fringe character in American politics. The bus tour puts that paradox on display for all to see.

If Palin runs and announces at the end of a bus tour (which may get extended to the West Coast), then it’s a rather conventional story about skillful momentum building and buzz generation.  What does this mean if she’s not running?  It allows her to raise money for her PAC, an activity in which practically every Republican contender engaged without blitz coverage from the media, so it also builds her power as a kingmaker.  But it also serves another purpose:

Even apart from the financial considerations, though, the media coverage will remind other Republican candidates that Palin can command overshadowing attention at almost any time. If the candidates who do enter the race aren’t addressing her priorities, Palin could threaten their ability to win the base, especially the Tea Party activists who comprise Palin’s passionate following.

In fact, Palin could conceivably do more to influence the election as a kingmaker on the outside, especially with the power of her PAC, than a primary candidate on the inside.

The media keeps treating Palin like a celebrity rather than a political thinker, and they keep playing right into her hands as they do.  That kind of treatment has to be a little galling, but Palin’s putting it to the best possible use.

Update: Byron York reports that the media is missing the story in another sense, too:

One thing many viewers have probably missed in all the horse-race speculation is that Palin is perfectly willing to discuss her positions on key issues, if anyone wants to ask. In fact, in recent days, weeks, and months, we’ve seen a lot of policy commentary from the former Alaska governor.

For example, during the bus trip, Palin took a stand on an issue that is crucial for candidates considering a run in the Iowa caucuses. “I think that all of our energy subsidies need to be re-looked at today and eliminated,” Palin told RealClearPolitics. “We’ve got to allow the free market to dictate what’s most efficient and economical for our nation’s economy.” What that means is Palin opposes the infamous ethanol subsidy that some presidential aspirants are afraid to question, lest they lose support in heavily agricultural Iowa.

Palin has also been speaking out in support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan — another question that Republicans, and certainly all Republican presidential candidates, have had to answer. Palin supports the Ryan plan and even adds that she’d like to include Social Security in the deficit-cutting mix (something Ryan left out). And when Palin criticizes President Obama’s inaction on the deficit, even David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who once said Palin “represents a fatal cancer to the Republican Party,” observes that, “Sarah Palin is right about that. He has no plan.”

Palin has also been talking about foreign policy. In an extended on-the-bus interview with Fox News’ Greta van Susteren, Palin addressed a proposal for $2 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt. “We don’t have the $2 billion!” Palin said. “Where are we going to get it? We’re going to go borrow it perhaps from China? We’ll borrow money from foreign countries to give to foreign countries.” The problem would be far worse, Palin said, if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a significant role in a new Egyptian government and “our U.S. dollars go to support a government that perhaps will not be friendly to the American government.”

Again, this is exactly the kind of political tour that other Republicans have conducted, with much more serious coverage from the media than given Palin’s tour.  With all of those reporters following the bus, why aren’t more of them reporting the political story rather than the celebrity story?