Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Palm Palin: A hand job and its consequences

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may be either the most daringly self-inventive political figure on the American scene or just the one most desperately in need of a clue. From making the mavericky decision to quit her state post (vacating a power position of some leverage if she really wanted to be president) to writing a roguey book that nonetheless made her a millionaire in as close to overnight as this economy allows, Palin is carving out a reputation as a Rashomon presence in our political culture: adored or reviled, depending on your perspective.

Two recent events bear that out all over again. On Feb. 6 at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Palin addressed the first Tea Party Convention, a gathering of conservative iconoclasts, ideologues and malcontents for whom the Republican Party is, for now, apparently not conservative enough. Palin, a darling of the Tea Party set, vaulted into another variation of her set speech:

“Very good to be here in Tennessee, the Volunteer State. It’s the home of good country music and good southern barbeque, and…great to be at the Tea Party Convention. I guess down here, that’s some southern sweet tea. And you know, up in Alaska, we have a smaller version of Tea Party up there, and we call it ice tea.

“And I am a big supporter of this movement. I believe in this movement. Got lots of friends and family in the lower forty-eight who attend these events, and across this country, just knowing that this is the movement and that America is ready for another revolution, and you are a part of this. ...

“This is about the people ... and it's a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a TelePrompter,” Palin said at one point, making a reference to Obama's use of TelePrompters.

But something shows up on the replays of her Nashville speech. At one point, when her left hand is momentarily open, it’s visible: there are talking points clearly written on her left hand in ink:

Energy
Budget cuts [“budget” crossed out, replaced by]
Tax cuts
Lift America’s spirits

Independent journalist Stefan Sirucek, writing in The Huffington Post, offers a clarification:

“The notes most likely weren't for her speech, for which she used prepared remarks, but for the Q&A session that followed, during which she glanced at the hand in question.

“But in my opinion that's even worse.

“There were no specifics on there, just general concepts and things she supports.

“The takeaway is that this presidential contender apparently can't remember her supposed core principles and needs a cheat-sheet when simply asked about her beliefs.

To quote Charlie Brown: Good grief.”

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Jotting crib notes on one’s hand is nothing new for public speakers. It’s usually done to spur a speaker’s recall of salient points to be elaborated on at length and in depth. What’s so problematic for Palin is how this plays into the long-building narrative that she doesn’t think on her feet that well.

And what was written — a clutch of bullet-point words and phrases — only superficially dovetailed with anything approaching a policy statement or an original political philosophy. The handwritten notes and the address they stemmed from had only the scarcest detail and insight. They point to how Palin thinks in bromides and slogans, skimming the surface of the nation’s most important issues.

The Tea Party crowd assembled in Nashville wouldn’t have cared that night; they greeted her with rapturous applause, and the kind of automatic hosannas professing an appeal that continues not in spite of the mainstream’s denigration of Palin, but because of it.

◊ ◊ ◊

A new poll released near the same time as Palin’s hand job indicates that the country as a whole is a lot less charitable. A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted between Feb. 4 and Feb. 8 found that 52 percent of Republicans say she’s not fit to be president.

Among the general American population, 71 percent of people say she is unqualified for the gig — an 11 percent increase in unfavorables just since November.

A Feb 1-3 Gallup Poll puts it another way. Naming their preferences for the 2012 derby, 14 percent of Republicans or Republican-leaning voters — independents in all but name — support former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for the presidency. Fourteen percent is hardly a ringing endorsement, but at this early stage and no firm field of contenders, it’s pretty much expected.

But it’s striking that, after her furious media exposure since the 2008 camapign (a best-selling book, a job as a Fox News analyst, numerous magazine covers and mentions) only 11 percent of those voters in the Gallup survey back a Palin campaign in ’12.

That response could be based as much on disbelief in her political acumen; in some ways it could be their way of saying that right now, Palin’s overexposed, a light burning twice as bright for half as long.

◊ ◊ ◊



Palin’s problem, now and in the ’08 GOP debacle, has been having the ability to build a consensus of like-minded partisans, few of whom have a like mind to begin with. Her initial post-2008 support from regular Republicans smitten with the promise of a new and attractive face has fragmented into backing from the Tea Partiers, whose birther-fueled hate is hardly a platform for a springboard to a national campaign, let alone a shot at a national victory.

And Palin herself speaks in such passive-aggressive, flag-bedecked generalities, she’s created a following built around the flimsiest outlines of a political philosophy. She’s the Great & Powerful Oz from the Yukon.

And since for the most part her talking points dovetail with those of the Republicans — tax cuts, rein in government spending, fidelity to GOP social tripwire issues — the question for the rock-ribbed GOP crowd and independents alike is simple: Why fool around with a Republican Lite when they can have the real thing?

The fact that at this point Romney leads any hypothetical pack of Republican contenders is important. If he’d had a sharper message and been a more inspiring messenger, Romney might well have been the Republican nominee for president in 2008. As it is now, from the standpoint of personal achievement, government service and political credibility, Romney’s electables dwarf Palin’s by orders of magnitude. There’s not enough room on both of her hands to write the reasons why.

Image credits: Palin: Reuters/Josh Anderson. Palin left hand: Unknown. 2012 poll snapshot: Gallup Poll.

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