Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Little Palin Blogging

Liberals have come to really, really, really, hate David Broder, and so they're all upset that he spent today's column saying that Sarah Palin should be taken seriously as a future presidential candidate.  Palin, Broder thinks, does "outsider populist" well, and in Broder's view that's one of the potentially successful messages presidential candidates have used.

Against that, Matt Yglesias cites Palin's terrible poll numbers, and Steve Benen responds to Broder's claim that "the lady is good" by asking: "good at what?"  Greg Sargent gets his shots in too.

I think the fuss here is about Broder, not Palin.  Yes, her polling numbers stink, and that's worth noting when considering her chances for 2012.  On the other hand, it's very early.  We don't know who the candidates will be by fall of 2011, or the issues, or even what Palin's issues will be by then.  There's more than enough time for her to "write" a book full of wonkish policy stuff on any issue she wants, or for her to give a series of serious substantive speeches on any subject or subjects (for those who don't think she could do such things, I'll remind you that such things can be purchased by anyone with the cash to do so).  Republicans now disposed to like her but to believe she lacks the substance to be president could be convinced by such maneuvers. 

I can answer Steve Benen's question, however.  What's Palin good at?  One thing: resentment.  And if there's one thing we know about Republican presidential nominations, it's that resentment sells...the only real exception that I can think of would be George H.W. Bush's defeat of Bob Dole in 1988 (and perhaps Reagan's defeat of Dole in 1980, but Reagan was better at resentment than Howard Baker, Bush, Anderson, or Connolly).   Sarah Palin appears, to my eyes at least, to be the best at translating personal pique into national political resentment since Richard Nixon, the all-time master of it.  I have no idea whether she will wind up even running.  I agree with those who can't quite see her trudging around Iowa and New Hampshire for months, and it's hard to see how she can run for president without at some point becoming a lot more competent at some of the basics of talking about public policy issues than she's bothered to do to this point.  The polling, as I said, is also relevant and not a positive.  But resentment is an asset.  I think those who think she has no chance are kidding themselves; of course she has a chance to win the Republican nomination.  David Broder is only stating the obvious when he says she has has a real chance, and she's good at what she's good at.


  1. David Brooks' comments do not really conflict with Andrew Sullivan's take on Palin, which is that she is dangerous. She is only dangerous if she is good at something, and she can indeed emotionally connect with an audience, and that is a rare and vital skill for a politician.

    Bernstein isolates the strength of this connection to resentment. Resentment may be the single biggest word, but she seems to not only get an audience resentful and angry, but she also seems capable to inspire a crowd to action.

    Liberals who mock her as a hick really miss the point, because dismissive mockery strengthens her appeal.

    The best approach is to attack her as a liar, criticize her policy depth, and talk about how the presidency requires great analytic powers and wide knowledge she just does not have. These are not cultural attacks, and they will not inflame resentments outside of the Republican base. They instead create doubt in her abilities among people who emotionally find her quite likable.

    Perhaps the best line of attack is the enormous self-inflicted wound of her resignation. Calling her a quitter who lacks the grit to stay in a grinding tough job is not a cultural attack, and her spin on that issue will only be bought by her base.

  2. I'd like to run with anonymous' comments in those last couple paragraphs.

    Running through a lot of populist conservativism is anti-intellectualism. You see it in the attacks on "liberal elites." If dismissive mockery strengthens her appeal, then don't these attacks do the same thing? It's not just that attacking hicks gets people's dander up; attacking people for NOT being smart also might hurt.

    Honestly, I think the anti-intellectual AND hick attacks don't need to get "made" because they're already part of her media image. Journalists are already going to be building these themes into their narratives, so I'm not sure any attacks need to get made on them. However, the "quitter" attack might need to get made. The politics journalist is more focused on running for the next election than on the policy, so that attack might need to get hammered home more.

  3. I'm something of a Palin skeptic. She's already disliked by a majority of the American public, and almost 3/4 don't see her as qualified to be president. This comes after a year and a half of *very* heavy media exposure. I don't think she has much room to change her image, nor does she seem the sort to try.

    She could make a credible race for the Republican presidential nomination; it's hard to see her as the nominee (primary voters do seem to care about electability) and even harder to see winning the presidency.

    She reminds me less of Richard Nixon than of Spiro Agnew; the pre-Watergate Nixon was disliked but respected, while Palin is closer to the opposite. Like Agnew, she enjoys great popularity with the GOP base, mostly because liberals don't like her. Like Agnew, Republican insiders don't trust or respect her. Like Agnew, relatively few voters see her as a potential president even when they cheer on a speech. (Even if Agnew had remained VP (and Nixon remained president -- I won't cover a President Agnew counterfactual), he probably would have been beated for the '76 nomination by Reagan, Rockefeller or John Connally).

  4. "the pre-Watergate Nixon was disliked but respected, while Palin is closer to the opposite"

    Nice writing there. Liked but disrespected.

    Jarvis' point that attacks on her lack of policy and intellectual bona fides are unneeded because those weaknesses are embedded in her media image persuades me (I am anonymous above), and of course I am gratified he likes the idea of hammering in that she is a quitter.

  5. Richard,

    You're thinking 1968. In the 1950s, Nixon was similar to Palin -- loved by the GOP base, respected by no one.

    As you say, though, Palin so far hasn't shown any inclination to be the "sort to try," as you say. To me, that's really the key to the whole thing...she's reasonably positioned to be a serious candidate for the nomination, except that everything we know about her suggests she's unlikely to do the sort of things that it takes to capitalize on it. If that turns out to be wrong, then she has a good shot.

  6. Point taken. In '56, the Democrats actually ran ads against Nixon as the VP nominee. But Nixon used his time as vice president well, in a way that it's hard to see Palin doing.

    Plus Nixon won the loyalty of Republican officeholders by campaigning for them everywhere, under every condition. Palin seems to go only where she gets paid.

  7. And, in 1960, Nixon had the advantage of being the most obvious successor to one of the most popular presidents in history. I can't think of a comparable advantage for Palin.

    Plus did anyone ever think Nixon was *stupid*? People thought he was loathsome, transparent, phony, cynical, opportunistic, petty, demagogic, etc. But I don't think many people thought he lacked for brains.

  8. Oh, certainly, Nixon in the 1950s and Palin now aren't identical. I do think that he was thought to be a lightweight...not stupid, the way people think Palin is stupid, but not brainy, either. I think that comes later. By the way, when you're listing his supposed assets in 1960, don't forget "good on TV." He had that reputation, up until the debates.

    And yes, it was far easier for him to win as the sitting Veep in '60 than it would be for her as the recent Veep candidate in '12. It's still a pretty good head start, however.

  9. "she's reasonably positioned to be a serious candidate for the nomination"

    Sort of. Weakly positioned would also be a good phrase.

    Uncompromising base pleasers (Goldwater, McGovern) do get nominated, so Palin is positioned, but it is not the best place to run from even for the nomination, and it is worse for the general.

    It is best to be trusted by the base (Reagan, GWB), but to telegraph geniality, moderation, and tolerance to the electorate at large. That sort of position gets you the nomination and the Presidency. It lets you get the nomination without pandering to the base and then tack to the center without losing them.

    Tacking to the center is completely not in Palin's repertoire, and since she appeals to resentment and anti-intellectualism it is hard to see how she could moderate without losing her following.

    Speaking as someone who thinks she would be a catastrophe as President my main fear is that the country does truly poorly (>15% unemployment plus Edwardsian scandal for example) opening the middle to a demogogue who offers ready scapegoats.


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