Are We Underestimating Sarah Palin?


Following up on Tim's post below, I've been wrestling with the idea that we liberals might be underestimating Sarah Palin. It's not that, like David Broder or Joe Klein, I see political genius at work in her recent activities. And if the latest Washington Post poll is accurate, she's not too popular -- her favorability rating stands at 37 percent, her lowest ever, with only 26 percent saying she's qualified to be president.

Palin brings out strong feelings in people, for a lot of reasons. As a candidate building her brand on resentment of elites, she practices a very personal politics. "I do want to be a voice for some common-sense solutions. I'm never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I'm not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I'm going to fight the elitist because for too often and for too long now, I think the elitists have tried to make people like me and people in the heartland of America, feel like we just don't get it and big government is just going to have to take care of us," she told Chris Wallace of Fox News.

You'll notice that this is all about "people like me and people in the heartland of America," and how elitists make them feel. When Palin talks this way, it becomes plain to lots of people -- actually, to a majority of Americans -- that she's not talking to them. If you live in a city, you're not one of her people. If you're not Christian, you're not one of her people. If you value knowledge and reason, and cringe when a politician who would be president says that the way we should approach complex problems is to "start seeking some divine intervention again in this country, so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again," and if you think it might actually be a good thing for the president to "know more than the next person," then you're not one of her people.

In answer to the contempt that Palin believes has been heaped on her by the "elitists," she heaps contempt right back. And when you're the target of that kind of contempt, it's always difficult to come to an objective assessment about the person proclaiming so loudly that you're not one of the "real Americans." The temptation to say, "People can't possibly be buying this drivel, can they?" is very strong. We want to believe that our fellow citizens look on with incredulity at someone who not only writes notes on her hand like a junior high school student when she's speaking at an event where she knows she will be photographed by hundreds of cameras, but who needs notes to remind her to talk about tax cuts in the first place (she's a Republican, for god's sake -- they think tax cuts are the solution to post-nasal drip!). We want to believe that our fellow citizens will understand that if you can't manage to serve out a single term as governor of Alaska, you probably shouldn't be president. We want to believe it so badly that it might be hard to make a clear-eyed assessment of her chances in a presidential race.

When any of us make predictions about the political future, we end up picking and choosing the data points and logical arguments that seem to make sense, which are almost inevitably filtered through our biases and hopes. But what can we say about Palin at the moment? One might argue that, like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before her, Palin's utter ignorance when it comes to matters of government masks the shrewd political strategist underneath. But the truth is that Reagan actually knew quite a bit about policy. When he spoke in simplistic terms, it wasn't because he didn't know what he was talking about, it was because he understood what kind of rhetoric was effective. As for Bush, he was indeed ignorant of matters of government, but few observers who had watched him doubted his political skills. He also knew what he didn't know, and was secure enough to surround himself with people who could compensate for his weaknesses.

Palin was certainly a disaster as a vice-presidential candidate. Once the glow of a couple of good speeches wore off, it became apparent that her fan base was fervid but finite, just as it is today. We shouldn't mistake the intensity of her support for the idea that that support is wide. As the Post poll makes clear, most Americans -- like the 71 percent who said she's not qualified to be president -- aren't on her bandwagon. We don't know yet if she would be able to put together an effective campaign, but given her past, a Palin campaign would be more likely to be an alarming gaffe-filled train wreck (albeit an enormously entertaining one).

As we head toward 2012, it would probably be best to subject any strong feelings we have about her to careful examination, whether the fear that people will eat up her pabulum, or the conviction that she can't possibly be appealing to any but a small, bitter portion of the electorate. That Palin is not the sharpest tool in the shed is clear. Her supporters see that as a strength, not a weakness ("She's one of us!"), but whether she could get a majority of the public to agree remains an open question.

-- Paul Waldman

(AP Photo)