The whole phenomenon of Sarah Palin, I admit, is a mystery to me.
She has built a large following. She has powerful supporters in talk radio.
She is incontestably sincere. She is driven and gutsy. In Alaska, she took on the old bulls in her own party and won. For many, she embodies that strain of populism that believes an ordinary person, plucked from obscurity, can sometimes do extraordinary things.
And yet in Palin’s case, some vital element is missing. For example, the last chapter of her book, the one charting “the way forward,” should have been the most important.
These days the Republican Party — and the political right in general — is more united than it has been for some time, thanks to the debacle unfolding in Washington.
But beyond the immediate imperative of curbing the most disastrous impulses of the Obama administration, the Republicans are bereft of ideas. Their credibility as the party of fiscal responsibility was severely damaged by the Bush years. Nothing comparable to the power of supply-side economics, which helped propel Ronald Reagan to the White House, is on the horizon as a party platform.
So I was interested in what Sarah Palin might offer.
What I found ran for a mere 13 pages, written in prose that was utterly dead. She believes in America and our free enterprise system. The market should be allowed to work. Our foreign policy should be peace through strength. Energy independence is critical. We need to get federal spending under control.
OK, agreed. But where’s the insight, the persuasive spark that might make a skeptical reader say, “I hadn’t thought of that”? What I read only reinforced the perceptions Palin created with her disastrous Katie Couric interview and the jarringly disjointed speech she gave this year when resigning as Alaska’s governor.
I read that speech again and was struck by the enormous gap between sound and sense. She had placed the stunning news of her resignation in an inappropriate package of happy talk about the wonders of Alaska and her accomplishments. And oh by the way,her stepping down doesn’t mean she’s a quitter, because she’s decided to “take a stand and effect change.”
Palin is sometimes compared to Reagan. Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard, a good writer and a usually reliable source, notes that the elitists dismissed Reagan as they dismissed Palin, because, like Palin, “he represented the provincial folkways of small town America.”
But the comparison is ludicrous.
Palin was yanked from obscurity to be John McCain’s running mate, and in retrospect the move was simply more evidence of McCain’s famously erratic nature.
Palin’s record, compared with Reagan’s, is thin. By the time Reagan faced Jimmy Carter, he had spent years speaking and writing on the issues of the day. He had completed two terms as California governor. And he was thoroughly tested in national politics. In 1976, he nearly unseated Gerald Ford in the struggle for the GOP nomination.
Reagan was widely known and above all he had a superior rhetorical talent, meaning he had the capacity to persuade that every successful leader, and especially a president, must have.
Palin is mentioned frequently as a possible candidate for president, but it seems highly unlikely and it’s not clear she’s interested. She isn’t making any political visits in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Only 27 percent of the public see her in a positive light, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. Among Republicans, her approval is 52 percent — a split that suggests why she is potentially a big problem for the GOP if she returns to electoral politics.
Politicians change and grow, develop and learn. Politics is fascinating because, like sports, the seemingly impossible can happen. So Palin could come forth in some future election displaying greater depth and offering an exciting program. But that would be one heckuva comeback.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Via McClatchy-Tribune News Service.