Thursday, October 23, 2008

Sarah Palin as Rorschach Test

The fear and loathing, hate and scorn that Sarah Palin has generated since her meteoric appearance in the political firmament is both fascinating and disturbing; a subject for study by psychologists even more than political scientists or party tacticians. And it can't be chalked up to mere ideology, since some of the most vicious attacks have come from right-leaning pundits like Peggy Noonan, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.

I tend to write off the sniping from Noonan and Parker as cattiness and envy; there's a hot new conservative "it" girl in town and they're old news, as charter members of the conservative cougars club. Parker swung from swooning over Palin to dissing her in a matter of weeks, based, in seems, on Palin's poor showing in the Katie Couric interview. She seemed like a fickle teen dumping her latest BFF over some perceived slight. Plus, Parker is savvy enough to know that the quickest way to become a "mainstream" media darling, and get invited to the right parties, is to attack someone else on the right. I never saw Parker on the cable news gab shows until she did her hit piece on Palin. You shouldn't discount the element of self-promotion in her actions.

Sarah Palin was the girl who made cheerleader and got the hunk, while Noonan and Parker headed-up the forensic team and served as president of the School Library Club, determined to prove that they were more than just pretty faces (but secretly hoping they could be as popular as Sarah). And Brooks can only be counted a "conservative" in relative terms -- because he appears on an editorial page, and provides analysis on a PBS news show, that skew so far to the left. He's the sort of conservative liberals are comfortable with, and will tolerate, because he's really not much of a conservative at all.

That's a superficial (and somewhat snide) analysis, I know. Obviously, the national reaction to Palin -- which swings from adoration to contempt, depending on where in American society one stands -- exposes a deeper cultural divide, which Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger takes a laudable stab at explaining, in a piece I've pasted below.

I also think Henninger shows a flash of insight with the following observation: "Presidential candidates such as John McCain and Barack Obama have become untethered from the discipline of party institutions, largely because the parties have lost coherence. So we get celebrity candidates made famous, fundable and electable by dint of their access to the Beltway media. For voters, this election is a national Hail Mary."

But here's Henninger's column in its entirety:

Hatin' Palin

She's not the reason Americans can't stand their politicians.


The abuse being heaped on Sarah Palin is such a cheap shot.

The complaint against the Alaska governor, at its most basic, is that she doesn't qualify for admission to the national political fraternity. Boy, that's rich. Behold the shabby frat house that says it's above her pay grade. Congress has the lowest approval rating ever registered in the history of polling (12%!). She isn't the reason polls are showing people want the entire Congress fired, with many telling pollsters they themselves could do a better job.

Sarah Palin didn't design a system of presidential primaries whose length and cost ensures that only the most obsessional personalities will run the gauntlet, while a long list of effective governors don't run.

These rules have wasted the electorate's time the past three presidential elections, by filling the debates with such zero-support candidates as Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, Al Sharpton, Duncan Hunter, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden (8,000 total votes), Wesley Clark and Alan Keyes.
Out of this process has fallen a Democratic nominee who entered the U.S. Senate in 2005 fresh off a stint in the Illinois state legislature, with next to no record of political accomplishment. He may be elected mainly because, in Colin Powell's word, he is thought to be "transformational." One may hope so.

By not bothering to look very deeply at the details beneath either candidate's governing proposals, the media have created a lot of downtime to take free kicks at Gov. Palin. My former colleague, Tunku Varadarajan, has compiled a glossary of Palin invective, and I've added a few: "Republican blow-up doll," "idiot," "Christian Stepford wife," "Jesus freak," "Caribou Barbie," "a dope," "a fatal cancer to the Republican Party," "liar," "a national disgrace" and "her pretense that she is a woman."

If American politics is at low ebb, it is because so many of its observers enjoy working in its fetid backwash.

The primary discomfort with Gov. Palin is the notion that she doesn't have sufficient experience to be president, that Sen. McCain should have picked a Washington hand seasoned in the ways of the world. Such as? Here's an opinion poll question: If as Joe Biden suggests the U.S. is likely to be tested by a foreign enemy next year, who of the following would you rather have dealing with it in the Oval Office: Nancy (of Damascus) Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Edwards, Joe (the U.S. drove Hezbollah out of Lebanon) Biden, Mike Huckabee, Geraldine Ferraro, Tom DeLay, Jimmy Carter or Sarah Palin?

My pick? Gov. Palin, surely the most grounded, common-sense person on that list of prime-time politicians.

The established political pros let the selection process come to this. Presidential candidates such as John McCain and Barack Obama have become untethered from the discipline of party institutions, largely because the parties have lost coherence. So we get celebrity candidates made famous, fundable and electable by dint of their access to the Beltway media. For voters, this election is a national Hail Mary.

For nearly two years, all the major candidates have rotated through our lives as solitary personalities attended by careerist campaign professionals. Barack, Hillary, Rudy, Mitt, Mike, McCain. When the moment arrived to pick a running mate, input from the parties was minimal. That famous party boss, Caroline Kennedy, advised Barack Obama. They picked a three-decade denizen of the Senate. John McCain's obligation was himself and his endless slog to this big chance.

The quick surge of party-wide excitement and campaign contributions after his selection of Sarah Palin made clear that the McCain candidacy was moribund and headed for a low-turnout debacle. If he had picked any of the plain-vanilla men on his veep short list -- Pawlenty, Sanford, Romney or Lieberman -- they'd have won approval from the media's college of cardinals, and killed his campaign.

The stoning of Sarah Palin has exposed enough cultural fissures in American politics to occupy strategists full-time until 2012. We now see there is a left-to-right elite centered in New York, Washington, Hollywood and Silicon Valley who hand down judgments of the nation's mortals from their perch atop the Bell Curve.

It seems only yesterday that the most critical skill in presidential politics was being able to connect to people in places like Bronko's bar or Saddleback Church. When Gov. Palin showed she excelled at that, the goal posts suddenly moved and the new game was being able to talk the talk in London, Paris, Tehran or Moscow. She looks about a half-step behind Sen. Obama on that learning curve.

Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of "Saturday Night Live," lives on the forward wave of American life. This week he gave his view of Sarah Palin to "I think Palin will continue to be underestimated for a while. I watched the way she connected with people, and she's powerful. Her politics aren't my politics. But you can see that she's a very powerful, very disciplined, incredibly gracious woman. This was her first time out and she's had a huge impact. People connect to her."

Uh-oh. Sounds like the cancer could be in remission.


Carla said...

Sean: You're so right about the conservatives writing against Sarah Palin. I used to watch the News Hour with Jim Lehrer when it was Shields and Gigot. When Gigot left for the Wall Street Journal and Brooks came in, I stopped watching. There was no longer a balance of opinions presented.

I wonder if the powers that be are watching and paying attention. Our Republican nominee had lukewarm support as a maverick who reached across the aisle. It was not until he picked a real conservative that his campaign took off. I, for one, am tired of Republicans who are Democrat-lites. Judging by the reaction to Palin, I'm not the only one.

Charles Dundee said...

I would rather be ruled by Queen Elizabeth rather than someone who speaks with a style and manner of the lower end of the blue-collar communities I used to live in. They are not bad people, they just haven't yet learned for example,how reading books and magazines other than Cosmopolitan can expand ones mind and political and personal outlook and actually give them a clue for example just what a VP of the US actually does.