The Sarah Palin Rorschach Test

It is an all encompassing endeavor for conservative pundits these days. No, not covering the election, but bashing or bolstering Sarah Palin.

She’s a cancer on the Republican Party! No, she the future star! She’s a know-nothing, anti-intellectual or she has a brilliant analytical mind. Take your pick.


There are, of course, observers who take a position somewhere in between. Some express concern about her qualifications, but remain optimistic about her future and recognize her progress as a candidate. Others think the GOP must move to the center and don’t see her as the person to lead that mission. But the loudest voices are the most extreme in their opinions. As with many fights in the punditocracy, the strongest language is often directed at the opposing camp. And the voices are certainly loud.

It is hard at times to discern the defining characteristics of each camp. It’s not inside vs. outside the Beltway. After all Fred Barnes is as “inside” as David Brooks, yet they are on opposite sides of the Palin war. Nor is it simply ideology. Heather Mac Donald, stalwart conservative on immigration and other topics, squared off against equally conservative Laura Ingraham recently on Palin. (The former was anti-Palin, the latter pro-Palin.)

One dividing line is religion. Religious conservatives have embraced her, while adamant secularists such as Christopher Hitchens consider her a despicable figure. But, again, this seems an imprecise line of demarcation. There are social conservatives in both camps and some of Palin’s biggest boosters aren’t social conservatives.

Sure, there’s a strong suspicion that many in the anti-Palin camp are posturing to ingratiate themselves with the Washington cocktail set. (One defender of Palin recently said to me of Palin opponents: “They want to be above the respectability bar, not below it.”) But I will accept for sake of argument that most advocates on both sides are sincere. And I’ll ignore for a moment that a number of Palin skeptics may have another candidate already in mind for 2012. So what’s the real difference between the sides?


I think it breaks down into “Players” and “Kibitzers.”

The Players are those who engage in politics not simply as an intellectual exercise but as a sport — a combat sport. They appreciate the need to sell and engage voters. They like the rough and tumble of campaigns. They understand the point of it all is to “win, baby, win.” And because they see politics as a group activity they are attuned to the audience — the voters. They watch the crowd, not because the crowd is “right,” but because without the crowd (voters), this is all an academic exercise. It is not hard to see why talk show hosts fall into this category. They, after all, make their living engaging the public and understand precisely what it takes to hold their interest.

That is not to say that the Players don’t care about ideas or the message. To the contrary, because they see the message of conservatism as a valuable and potentially winning vision they are extremely attuned to finding the right messenger. If you trust the message to the wrong candidate you get 1996, or worse.

On the other side are the Kibitzers, those who don’t hold office or run campaigns or much bother with real voters. They write books, tell us what is wrong with conservatism, and scold the poor slobs who run campaigns. They lack any visceral sense of actual conservative voters. Their bent is decidedly academic and their approach to politics is sterile. If you can simply come up with the ideal blueprint, go on Charlie Rose’s show, and write a column for the New York Times or Washington Post, the light will go on, the conservative movement will be saved, and they will earn the applause of their peers.


Now, some of the Kibitzers, truth be told, don’t care much about ideas: it is sentiment and word pictures that catch their attention. They’d rather toss around elegant phrases unmoored to any reasoned argument — slip the surly bonds of analysis, as it were — than mix it up in the hurly-burly of real electoral politics. And Palin’s not very poetic, after all.

So it’s not hard to see why the Players love Palin. She weaves and bobs, winks and parries. She socks the opposition and lights up the crowd. Her instincts appear entirely conservative and her determination to rid the Republican Party of corruption and insiderism — the very things which have contributed to damaging the Republican “brand” — suggest she could be well suited to reviving and rehabilitating the Republican Party. She’s a doer, the ultimate defining characteristic of a Player.

It is equally clear why the Kibitzers disdain her. She doesn’t likely read any of their books for starters. She doesn’t spout philosophy (Abraham Lincoln doesn’t count in the Kibitzers’ book). She’s not going to discuss at length realism vs. neo-conservatism. And she has this terribly annoying habit of characterizing Barack Obama in stark, unfavorable terms instead of soaking up his transformational brilliance, as the Kibitzers have done. She’d never be mistaken for a think tank scholar and certainly never rate a column in a mainstream newspaper.


None of this is to say who is “right” about Palin. She might be the savior of the GOP or a flash in the pan. But the reactions to her and the force with which they are put forth, often in excessively personal terms, tell us more about the pundits than the subject of their attention. And they suggest that it will be a rocky road ahead, indeed, as the two sides wrestle over whether conservatism devolves into a philosophical exercise or remains a viable political movement.


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