For an uneducated, unsophisticated rube and former governor from a backwater state, Sarah Palin sure can drive a debate. With prospects for passage of his sweeping overhaul of the American health care delivery system fading with every speech, President Barack Obama is making it increasingly clear that Palin will be recognized, for good or ill, as perhaps the most prominent single political figure responsible for stopping it in its tracks.
It’s a remarkable story. A failed vice-presidential candidate and resigned governor — unfairly viewed by many as a cruel joke — reached from beyond the political grave her elitist critics prematurely dug for her and her political future to thwart a popular president prematurely regarded by the same elite that shunned her as perhaps the most gifted politician this nation has ever produced. If Sarah Palin were a sitting governor, a failed presidential candidate, or even a state legislator, her influence in the health care debate would not be as unexpected. It is the fact that she is a private citizen, completely out of politics save for a small political action committee, that makes this story unique.
How did she do it? That’s where the story gets even more remarkable.
There were no public appearances or speeches, no glitzy ad campaigns, no publicity tours, no interviews in the mainstream press or any new media outlet. Sarah Plain killed health care reform with a posting on her Facebook page, an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and an exquisite sense of timing.
If history remembers one thing from the current debate over health care, it will remember the phrase “death panel.” Just as Harry and Louise form the enduring image from President Clinton’s failed attempt to take over the health care system, the “death panel” image will come to symbolize Obama’s failure and Palin’s triumph.
It’s almost the perfect political catchphrase. “Death panel” encapsulates everything people fear about the consequences of a government with too much power over those it is supposed to serve.
That turn of phrase, delivered just as Congress was getting ready for the August recess, was the bolt of lightning that set ablaze the brush fires of public unrest over Obama’s plan which manifested itself in town hall meetings across the country. It robbed the White House of message control at a critical juncture and forced the administration to respond to the charge — and to Palin.
The media rushed to Obama’s defense to debunk Palin’s critique. But when the Senate Finance Committee announced a week later that it was removing end-of-life counseling provisions from the bill it was negotiating, the game was up. The White House was exposed and Palin stood vindicated.
Palin returned to the debate on the day before President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. She skillfully refuted points made by Obama in a New York Times op-ed and made the case for Republican alternatives to the top-down government-run plan that the president espoused. It may be giving Palin too much credit to say that her criticisms influenced the tone of the president’s address. But there is no doubt that she took Obama off his game.
Obama responded with one of the ugliest and most partisan speeches ever delivered by a president of the United States from the rostrum of the House chamber. Gone was the soaring rhetoric, the confidence, and the hope. The spectacle of the most powerful man in the world attacking a private citizen — calling her a liar — in that setting was extraordinary. Obama abandoned all pretense of honest debate, making claims about his plan that are not born out in the actual legislation. It was a small speech, delivered by a very thin-skinned man.
Now, even unapologetic liberal Charlie Rangel admits that Obama’s speech may have hurt chances to get his health care reform plan passed.
How many political figures are there in America who could be so thoroughly derided and written off as Sarah Palin, yet still manage to command so much attention and wield so much influence? The number can likely be counted on one hand.
Sarah Palin challenged a popular president in the arena of ideas, armed with little more than the force of her personality and a steadfast belief in her principles, and emerged victorious. Not bad for a cruel political joke.