Monday, October 5, 2009
Sarah Palin was in the news again the other day--or rather, Sarah Palin is still in the news--because her yet-to-be-released book, Going Rogue: An American Life is already climbing the bestseller lists. It's just the latest of many successes for Palin--no matter how you feel about her, you have to admit she's on one hell of a winning streak. In 1996 she was a city councilwoman in a small Alaskan town, and 13 years later she's a former Vice-Presidential candidate, a former governor, a "new media" sensation (nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter before she stopped tweeting, more than 900,000 supporters on Facebook), a potential Presidential candidate, and now a best-selling author.
There are two conventional narratives to explain Palin's rise. The first narrative--which you believe if you're buying her book--describes Palin as a good-hearted, commonsensical, genuinely patriotic woman who understands ordinary Americans and their concerns, but because she isn't a slick-talking suit from Washington the liberal media is always trying to tear her down and make her look stupid. The second narrative is that Palin is a small-town hick who lucked out when McCain screwed up and picked her as his running mate, and now she unfortunately has a platform for her ignorant views which are meaningless ramblings at best and race-baiting Fascist rants at worst.
In both versions, Palin is basically a passive actor, an innocent who had the spotlight thrust on her. Maybe that's true, but there's a third point of view that, even though it's rarely brought up, scares the Wasilla out of me: what if Palin knows exactly what she's doing?
Take the "death panel" Facebook note that Palin wrote in August. She said, "The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s 'death panel'" and "death panels" were all of a sudden all over the news. Democrats had to stand up at town hall meetings and deny the existence of such deah panels. Let's go over that another time, because it is a frankly incredible example of driving the debate: using only a social networking site, Palin put her opponents on the defensive to such an extent that they had to promise not to kill old people and the handicapped. Now that, ladies and gentleman, is some old-fashioned politics.
Palin's supporters claim that the media "attacks" her, and while liberal blogs and commentators certainly relish using her for target practice, she gives just as good as she gets. She's a master (mistress?) of using the Republican distrust of the "liberal" media to protect herself against criticism--any question a reporter asks, any investigation of her background can be framed as an unfair attack, because of liberal bias. When Katie Couric famously asked Palin what newspapers the potential VP read and Palin clumsily dodged the question, Palin later said her answer was "filtered" and talked about how she would get "clobbered" no matter how she answered. (Glenn Beck did the same thing recently when questioned by Couric about "white culture"). When she was bombarded with ethics complaints as governor, Palin attacked her accusers in her resignation speech. Palin knows that in politics, when you go on the defensive you can only lose. When in doubt, attack. If accused of anything, accuse the accuser of lying and make them prove their allegations--by the time they do, the news cycle will have moved on and no one will care. The media isn't Palin's enemy, it's her instrument.
At the same time, Palin is as in touch with her constituents as any politician working today. (Her constituency isn't Alaskans at this point, it's rank-and-file Conservatives everywhere.) Consider Palin's bulletproof public image. She's been involved in the following scandals:
Her (alleged) efforts to fire a state trooper for personal reasons.
Her daughter's pregnancy, engagement, and publicized break-up with the father of her kid.
Her inquiries about banning books.
Her husband's membership in a separatist movement.
Her shopping sprees while on campaign.
And I'm sure I left a few out. But no one cares about these scandals, except those who were going to hate her anyway. She's never done anything so blatantly, viscerally wrong that her career is destroyed by it. Despite everything, she's close behind MItt Romney for early Republican 2012 presidential polls. Compare that to the last losing VP candidate, John Edwards, who was also young, good-looking, a favorite of his party's base, and something of a populist. His life is falling apart on Google News and his career is over. Who's the savvier politician, Edwards or Palin?
Palin's genius--she is a genius of politics like Mike Tyson was a genius of boxing--is that she has figured out new paradigms of campaigning and media manipulation while older career politicians lag behind. Working your way up from the bottom of your political machine's ladder is no longer the best method, as Barack Obama's rise demonstrates. Now you have to look good on TV, define yourself as a product, and connect to your voters directly (Facebook and Twitter) or through highly partisan news sources (Fox News). If you are a good enough at inspiring strong emotions, you no longer need ideas or the ability to govern.
Ability to govern is Palin's weak point, clearly. She is a hell of a crowd drawer, and she's a rabble-rouser in the same sense that Picasso was a painter, but there's no evidence she can actually run a country, a state, or a town with more than 7,000 people. But she's so good at controlling the debate and the media that governance and compromise--once regarded as fundamental skills of politicians--are almost besides the point. To use a basketball metaphor as she's so fond of using, she's a shoot-first point guard: all flash, no substance, but looks good enough that she can fool people.
Like most Liberals, I think Sarah Palin sucks. But they loathe her because they think she's dumb and crazy. I fear her because my biggest fear is that she's not as dumb as she acts.