Politics & Media
Jan 14, 2010, 08:23AM

All the Right Enemies

It’s almost painful watching a level-headed conservative attempt to defend Sarah Palin in good faith—hint: it's not possible without some careful shortcuts.

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Sarah Palin recently nabbed another news cycle in regard to her upcoming speech at the National Tea Party Convention. Politico reported that she charges “$100,000 a speech, with a discount to $75,000 for West Coast appearances,” and has “reportedly waived the fee for some charitable events.” That’s serious cash for the raging populist from Alaska, and in the ensuing backlash (tickets to the convention are priced in the many several hundreds of dollars) she has declared she will receive no payment for her appearance—the press blackout remains, of course.

In the middle of this cycle we learned Palin joined FOX News—a veritable cornerstone of the mainstream “gotcha” media, where she will surely pull down an enormous salary for sitting in front of a camera and crowing (the norm for roughly 96 percent of cable news anchors).

As a liberal I’ve long since burned away my Palin ire, now seeing her as a legitimate political entity (her approval ratings) and, as such, almost certain to crash and burn as a Republican/third party nominee for president (her disapproval ratings) or settle into comfort as yet another FOX demagogue. Her appearances with Bill O’Reilly aren’t the stuff political dreams are made of, but are a far cry from her disastrous interview with Katie Couric in ‘08, though some of the old Palin resurfaced during this exchange with Glenn Beck. When asked who her favorite Founding Father was, she hemmed and hawed like only classic Palin (or maybe Caroline Kennedy) can and answered “all of them.” Beck presses the question, and here is her answer, emphasis mine:

They were led by, of course, George Washington. So he’s got to rise to the top. Washington was the consummate statesman. He served, he turned power to the people. He didn’t want to be a king. He returned power to the people. Then he went back to Mount Vernon. He went back to his farm. He was almost reluctant to serve as president too and that’s who you need to find to serve in government, in a bureaucracy—those who you know will serve for the right reasons because they’re reluctant to get out there and seek a limelight and seek power. They’re doing it for the people, that was George Washington.

"Reluctant” is hardly a word anyone would use to describe Palin’s relationship with the spotlight.

These minor developments in the Palin saga are significant when regarded in the context of her defenders. And by defenders I mean right-of-center thinkers making honest attempts to reconcile her explosive popularity with her obvious shortcomings. It’s an all too common dance—with an obvious parallel with President Obama and the liberal blogosphere re: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the Defense of Marriage Act; military tribunals; and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

But the struggles intelligent conservatives face, concerning Palin, are a world away from the liberals’ issues with Obama. Those seeking to find a middle ground with Palin inevitably twist themselves in irrevocable knots.

My case in point appeared at Front Porch Republic, a wonderful salon-style online publication that traffics in deeply thought-out libertarian, conservative, local and similar issues. Jeff Taylor, writing from Jacksonville, AL, (the site almost always attaches datelines to its articles, as if such analytical and theoretical columns were dispatches from the real America) put down nearly 6,000 words on Sarah Palin—the spillover from a 3,000-word review of Going Rogue that ran in The American Conservative (also not a terrible place for the left-thinking).

The review opens,

I want to like Sarah Palin. But to borrow a title from Hitchcock, I feel like The Man Who Knew Too Much—about The Woman Who Knew Too Little. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care that Palin is not a policy wonk. In some ways, that’s a plus.

It takes Taylor all of 49 words before he’s tiptoeing around the rational—she’s not a policy wonk—and the irrational—he wants to like her. Everything that ensues in the review and the spill column falls along those lines. He makes an admirable attempt to view her strengths and weaknesses in as fair a light as possible—characteristic of a lot of the reasoning going on at those two outlets, regardless if you agree with the conclusion or not—but simply can’t avoid using broad strokes to skirt around larger issues nor the tendency to present straw man binaries.

Before I get into those I want to mention “Sarah Palin the Moose Killer,” wherein Taylor offers perhaps the most cogent analysis of the trope:

All of us have heard about Sarah the moose slayer. Not everyone is charmed by the image. I recently received an email from an impassioned critic: “Sarah Palin is a wolf killer. She is also a bear killer. Sarah Palin is a destroyer and a murderer. Sarah Palin is despicable.” In response, I told the writer that while I, too, support animal rights, the vast majority of Americans do not. They see nothing wrong with shooting a wolf (from an airplane or the ground), or killing a moose, bear, deer, cow, pig, or chicken. There’s no use trying to hold Palin to a higher standard. In my book, the gratuitous killing of a goose by a costumed John Kerry for the sake of a campaign photo op is more disgusting. I’m guessing the two hours he spent in an Ohio cornfield and the bloody goose he hauled out lost him more votes than he gained. At least Sarah Palin hunts without inviting the press.

It’s hard not to mention the ridiculous turkey slaughter clip, but his point is well taken.

But later on Taylor concludes that Palin was over-prepped for the infamous Couric interview and the VP debate, to which one can only ask, “Really?” Even if she was force-fed talking points she was still unable to regurgitate them in any coherent way and mostly without any regard for syntax.

Deep in the review Taylor goes on a great run of observations: her parallels with Pat Buchanan's frontier populistm; glowing profiles from The Weekly Standard, purebred elitist Bill Kristol’s message vehicle; and his comparison of her to other populists:

A folksy demeanor does not make one a populist. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are folksy. Neither is a populist. Lyndon Johnson was down-to-earth to the point of being crude. It did not stop him from being a willing servant of Wall Street. Richard Nixon’s middle-class resentment of the wealthy was a chip on his shoulder, yet as president he surrounded himself with Rockefeller Republicans and Ivy League graduates.

The run ends with Rod Dreher’s near perfect description of Palin’s populism: She is “selling a personality, not a platform.” And yet, Taylor just can’t help himself when he segues with, “And yet. Sarah Palin has so many of the right enemies."

In the spillover piece, Taylor’s civility cracks slightly when he writes,

People don’t like to be talked down to or have their communities dismissed as fly-over country. There is a reason why we find a sea of red with islands of blue, mostly representing the metropolitan centers, when we look at a map of U.S. counties for recent presidential elections. Maybe talk of “real Americans” is the revenge of the demeaned. When compared to cosmopolitan elites, there is an element of truth to it.

How he follows “revenge of the demeaned” with “there is an element of truth to it” is simply beyond me. Is Palin’s potential as a fired-up populist who leaves liberals (and not a few conservatives) almost literally foaming at the mouth just too much to deny? There is a whiff of resignation in Taylor’s pieces, one of, “Well, she’s here and a lot of people like her so we might as well try to reconcile her tangible negatives with her intangible positives.” Since she quit the governorship she lost any accountability—she’s a FOX pundit now for god’s sake—and so her statements and speeches exist solely in the echo chamber. Obama catches flack on the far left for the issues listed above, but he’s an elected official leaving behind policies both good and bad in his wake.

On the topic of Palin leaving the Alaskan statehouse, Taylor twists himself around reality and projection once again:

Admittedly, resigning the governorship is a strange move when you have 1½ years left in your term—years, not months. Having over one-third of your time left is not lameduckery! At the time, there was speculation that a scandal or indictment would soon follow, but the other shoe has not dropped. Maybe it does have something to do with Palin’s unsophisticated maverickhood. Perhaps she really did want to allow Alaska government to move on without being tangled up in political controversy, simultaneously freeing her to pursue her national ambitions without being tied up back home. The resignation may have been a mistake, and it’s doubtful that she was completely honest about her reasons, but it does reinforce her reputation as an unconventional politician.

For someone who considers Palin’s character as her “strong suit,” that Taylor thinks she was full of crap about her intentions for leaving the governorship is pretty transparent. He writes, near the end of the spill piece, “With typical lack of nuance, Sarah caused a stir when she accused Obama health care reform as paving the way for ‘death panels’ which might pass judgment on imperfect babies and ill grandparents.” What Taylor perceives as a “typical lack of nuance” is amoral fear mongering, deliberately coercing and lying to her supporters with demonstrably false information.

In the conclusion of his review, Taylor switches back to levelheaded mode:

The contradiction of populism is that the sincere champion of the common people must be better informed, more astute, and more steadfast than the people themselves in order to serve them effectively. Identification with the people must coexist with discernment about the world of power and wealth. Or, as the Galilean said long ago to His disciples, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Spiritually and politically savvy yet true in intention and pure in action. That is a high calling, and it remains to be seen if Sarah Palin has what it takes.

I have seen no evidence of any savvy from Palin outside of scoring cheap political points on the issues of the day. What I’m left with at the end of these 10,000 words is the repeated feeling that this good-intentioned, freethinking conservative is in a bind. Palin isn’t a non-starter, but she’s far from a finisher—the notion that she can improve or better verse herself in the issues is pretty close to saying, “she’ll be prepped and handled better and will spin better.” Palin’s speaking fees and move to FOX only say one thing: She looks out for Sarah, either in the form of money-power-respect or straw polls.

The twisting and over-rationalization isn’t going to stop anytime soon—and I fully recommend reading both of Taylor’s pieces to the end. Overall, his commentary is a good lens for the broader conversation: what we look for in a leader.


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