Professional politicians and political journalists don’t waste energy on political corpses. They reserve their energy — positive or negative — for viable politicians.
Thus, an intriguing part of the Sarah Palin phenomenon is the intensity of response to her every word and move — from both Republican Party and Democratic Party professionals and from the conventional media. The negative but sustained passion being expressed by the professional Washington political class against her tends to belie its almost unanimous assertion that she is washed-up.
I happened to be on CNN Friday just as the story was breaking of Palin’s resignation as governor of Alaska, and for the next hour, I was the only on-air guest — Republican, Democrat, journalist, politician — who was not overtly contemptuous and dismissive of Palin and her political future. On Sunday, as a panelist on ABC’s "This Week," I was similarly situated.
What is it about Palin that elicits such furious bipartisan Washington dismissiveness? After all, the polls show her to be tied with Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee for the very early lead in the 2012 Republican primary. As an outspoken conservative with about an 80% favorable rating among Republicans and a high-40s percentage favorable plurality among independents, objectively she should be seen as quite competitive nationally compared with other Republicans, particularly given that Republicans are generically weak and that she has been targeted so viciously by the media.
Palin draws by far the biggest crowds of any current politician, other than, perhaps, the president. She was the only news phenomenon capable of knocking the Michael Jackson story off the cable news lineups. Impressively, while George W. Bush was able to elicit a Bush derangement syndrome from liberal Democrats and President Barack Obama has succeeded similarly with many conservatives, only Sarah Palin has induced simultaneous derangement from both Republican and Democratic professionals.
At a time when governments around the world — left, right and center — are failing to gain public confidence and even the winning Democratic Party in the U.S. struggles to match independents for the leading political category (while the Republican Party struggles to get to 25 to 30% market share), it might behoove those same party professionals who have been failing to connect their parties to the public to pause before calling Sarah Palin an incompetent politician. Conventional wisdom may not be reliable in unconventional times — or for unconventional politicians.
For instance, as the story was breaking Friday, fellow politically professional panelists were pointing out on-air how stupid Palin was to put forward her big story on a late Friday afternoon during a three-day holiday weekend. Everyone "knows" one buries a story that way. It became my grim duty to remind my fellow interlocutors — in case they had not noticed — that all the cable news shows were dropping their programming to switch to wall-to-wall coverage of the Palin announcement and that we were, at that moment, telling a national audience that the story we were talking about was being buried. The story persisted and expanded over the weekend, and my guess is that if any political topic came up at America’s millions of Fourth of July backyard barbecue parties, it was probably Sarah Palin. So, who’s the fool?
Well, I have had the honor of working for two politicians before they rose to their heights (as well as during their heights) — Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. And though they were vastly different men, both of them were considered, for different reasons, beyond the political pale in their earlier political years. If only Ronald Reagan could behave more like George Herbert Walker Bush and if only Newt Gingrich could behave more like Bob Michel, maybe they could succeed better at elective politics.
So, last weekend, the professionals were sneering confidently that Palin had made a fatal mistake by giving up the governorship of Alaska, because everyone knows that an aspiring candidate for higher office clings to his or her current office while running for the next one.
Well, I’m not so sure that being an incumbent is an advantage if the world seems to be going to hell and government is seen to be at least part of the cause for that journey. And though many conventional politicians might be seen as quitters if they resigned their offices, I have a very strong hunch that Sarah Palin is constitutionally incapable of being seen as a quitter. Because she is not. She constantly is taking on the biggest challenge on her horizon.
Now, I am not endorsing her, predicting she will run, or predicting she is likely to win if she runs. Let’s wait a couple of years before getting to those questions. If President Obama is seen by the public to be a great success as president in 2012, he probably will be re-elected.
But if he is not seen as a great success, the public may be looking for a straight-talking candidate from the heartland who calls for and truly believes in limited government, maximum personal freedom and fiscal responsibility.
People may be listening for someone who knows how to talk to them rather than at them or down to them.
They also may respond favorably to a candidate who does not respond favorably to the Washington political class — nor it to her.