The Education of Sarah Palin
If the Alaska governor can learn the hard lessons of the last few months, her career may not be over.
July 7, 2009 - 12:42 am
The mainstream media is reveling in Sarah Palin’s odd exit from the national stage. Her rather discombobulated press conference confirmed most of their deepest held beliefs. She’s a flake. She’s a dilettante. She’s not up for the scrutiny which goes with a national political career. And if they are unduly harsh and have been condescending and cruel beyond anything we have seen on the national scene, they at least have confirmed a key rule in politics: don’t give your enemies ammunition to confirm their worst suspicions about you.
Still, there is a lingering sense among many conservatives that this is not really Palin’s fault.
While conceding her poor interview outings during the campaign and other “missteps,” Ross Douthat sounds a sympathetic note for Sarah Palin:
Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)
Male commentators will attack you for parading your children. Female commentators will attack you for not staying home with them. You’ll be sneered at for how you talk and how many colleges you attended. You’ll endure gibes about your “slutty” looks and your “white trash concupiscence,” while a prominent female academic declares that your “greatest hypocrisy” is the “pretense” that you’re a woman. And eight months after the election, the professionals who pressed you into the service of a gimmicky, dreary, idea-free campaign will still be blaming you for their defeat.
But is that really the take-away for Palin and for non-elites who seek higher office? One can’t help but think that her supporters are missing a valid and central point made by her detractors. She never overcame the doubts about her knowledge, credibility, and seriousness about policy during a time in which conservatives and the country face monumental challenges.
I think back to the spate of post-election interviews. One after another — cooking with Greta Van Susteren and complaining to everyone who would listen — she merely re-enforced the sense that she was becoming a professional victim.
Contrast that to the quintessential anti-Palin: Mitt Romney. He has spent his post-candidacy doggedly working for other candidates, giving high-minded policy speeches, and studiously avoiding any of the tit-for-tat political recriminations which have absorbed not only Palin but another potential rival in 2012, Mike Huckabee.
One can’t help but think Romney is a grown-up, someone who has thought about the issues and is at least trying to formulate sober responses to the Obama left-wing agenda. As Gerald Seib put it: “Mr. Romney has developed a well-modulated critique of President Barack Obama, one that is tough without sounding harsh. … Yet the most important thing Mr. Romney is doing may lie elsewhere, in the air miles and shoe leather he is investing to help fellow Republicans. That is the kind of loyalty-inducing investment that can come back to benefit a presidential candidate.”
Couldn’t Palin have tried to do the same in the last six months? She gave not a single serious policy address. Her atrocious staff bollixed up or delayed multiple invitations to speak to sympathetic audiences. And we have had a non-stop drumbeat of personal angst.
The lesson here is not that conservatives can’t prosper in politics. The take-away isn’t that women are doomed to be second-guessed. And it surely isn’t news that mainstream media elites are unfair and obnoxious toward social conservatives. The central message is that serious times require serious candidates.
If Mark Sanford wants to have a midlife crisis, fine. But don’t run for higher office doing it. Huckabee wants to make a mint doing a cheesy Fox television show? Go for it. But don’t expect people not already smitten by his brand of populism to think better of him.
It is rather odd to complain that politics — the profession which marries serious policy and every manner of superficial PR — can be successfully mastered by someone who lacks serious policy ideas and is overwhelmed by bad PR.
Romney and other Republicans running or potentially running for higher office (e.g., Tim Pawlenty, Bobby Jindal, Meg Whitman, Rob Portman, and Marco Rubio) may not have the raw political charisma or engender the populist adulation that Palin does. But they are pleasing personalities, articulate, and bright. They sport compelling biographies and, most of all, are clear on a central truism: Politics has to be about the voters and their concerns. Otherwise it is indistinguishable from celebrity gossip.
Never say “never” in politics. But if Palin can’t figure all that out, she really has no national political future. If she can and gets as serious about the issues and as focused on other people’s problems as her potential rivals are, we may have not yet seen the end of her.