The Mama Grizzly and the Gipper

Sarah Palin went on “Fox News Sunday” in November of 2010 to defend herself against criticism from people such as Karl Rove, who said that starring in a so-called pseudo-reality television show, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” does not give her any “gravitas,” which she lacks and may never attain.

Palin responded to Rove’s questioning of how the show enhances her profile as Oval Office material in an exchange with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace by invoking Ronald Reagan, indirectly comparing herself with arguably the greatest President of the last century.  “Those standards have to be high for someone who would ever want to run for President, like, um, wasn’t Ronald Reagan an actor?  Wasn’t he in Bedtimes for Bonzo, Bozo, or something?  Ronald Reagan was an actor,” Palin said.

The movie was “Bedtime for Bonzo,” but that characteristic little misspeak aside, Palin’s supporters embrace the Reagan comparison as much as her detractors are aghast at it, and this exchange encapsulated the similarities and differences between Palin and Reagan.

Like Reagan, Palin’s considerable savvy, knowledge, and talent are often brushed aside and dismissed by the establishment ruling class, who either think they know better and are superior to Palin, or who often foolishly mistake a candidate’s eagerness and willingness to do favors for them, an “inside baseball” game Palin refuses to play, as the ultimate sign of competence or “gravitas.”

Unlike Reagan, though, Palin has not yet shown a skillful ability for subtlety and nuance on a variety of issues on the first take, which is something many believe must be a prerequisite for any leader who aspires to the highest office of the land.

In her exchange with Wallace, though Palin by no means meant to slight Reagan, her words and the jagged, imprecise way in which she delivered them were clumsy and not thought out.  And the offhanded way in which she spoke about Reagan as an actor reminded people of the way his detractors dismissed him as he was rising to power.  That, perhaps more than anything, enraged the likes of Reagan White House veterans such as Larry Kudlow. 

Her response to Wallace probably would have played better had it been in 140 characters on Twitter.  Of course, Palin was making a broader point—that she was being brushed aside as a reality show star the same way the elites brushed aside Reagan as a B-list Hollywood actor, but she did not word her response that precisely.

To put it another way, if someone compared a candidate with Palin by saying, “This candidate quit halfway into his term, but if Sarah Palin can do it, so can he,” such a comparison, even if meant to be positive, would probably not be well-received in Palin’s camp.

Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan.  Palin herself conceded as much when she said nobody can really be compared with The Gipper.

In fact, dubbing someone “the next Reagan” is unfair to both parties.  It is like comparing a modern civil rights leader with Martin Luther King.  Or an upstart basketball player with Michael Jordan.

Yet the temptation is there for many to do so because there are so many similarities and parallels on the surface.

For one, Reagan became the darling of conservatives with his “Time for Choosing” speech, delivered in defense of Barry Goldwater, and his impromptu address to the GOP convention in Kansas City in 1976 that left many delegates there believing they had nominated the wrong candidate in Gerald Ford.

Likewise, during the 2008 campaign, Palin outshined the person on the top of the ticket, John McCain, to the point where McCain subsequently had to stage events with his vice presidential nominee to draw crowds and generate enthusiasm that he himself simply could not.  And many conservative and grassroots activists saw Palin in 2008 as the future of the conservative movement.

Like Reagan, many establishment pooh-bahs think Palin is too extreme to win the general election and dismiss her intellectual capabilities.

Palin’s and Reagan’s spouses are also comparable.  Todd Palin is as alpha male as Nancy Reagan is feminine, yet he seems to be as comfortable having his wife take the lead as Nancy was with her husband.  Many reports also indicate that Todd is as fiercely protective of the Palin brand behind the scenes as Nancy was of the Reagan brand. 

In comparing Palin and Reagan, though, one must take into account the atmosphere and media environment in which Reagan ascended to the presidency versus Palin’s 21st century milieu.  Too often, people make the mistake of trying to transport Palin back to the 1980s, or the Reagan of the 1980s to today’s fragmented media landscape.

Reagan became President at a time when there were only three major networks and no conservative media outlets and alternatives.  On this playing field, his geniality, Irishman’s ability to tell stories, and avuncular affability were incredible assets.

Even in this atmosphere, Reagan was ahead of his time.  He was the king of one-liners, most notably telling Jimmy Carter, “There you go again” during a presidential debate in 1980 and stating to Walter Mondale that he would “not make age an issue of this campaign” and “exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”  Those sound bites devastated Reagan’s opponents and presaged this era dominated by cable television, in which everyone tries to utter the perfectly crafted one-liner that serves as a knockout punch.

Furthermore, Reagan—and the brilliant Michael Deaver who was his most trusted media adviser—often employed iconic images to shield himself from a hostile press corps, including evening anchors.  When Reagan had Normandy as his backdrop, or American flags, blue-collar workers at bill signings, or the Statue of Liberty, his favorable ratings went up even if the story about him was negative, which perplexed many in the Washington intelligentsia.  These photo-ops would be the norm after Reagan, but they certainly weren’t so before him.

In many ways, Reagan was the perfect leader for his time because he had a disposition that suited the non-fragmented media landscape that surrounded him, which consisted of a mix of the top-down three major broadcasting networks and the big national newspapers such as the New York Times and national newsweeklies such as Time.

The media landscape today is more fragmented than ever.  Talk radio, blogs, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and cable television give conservatives not only loud and prominent outlets but also an ability to get and share information in real time without the filter of mainstream media reporters and editors.  It has also made conservatives and conservatism more mainstream and much more a part of what Washingtonians call “the conversation.”

And while the field is still generally tilted against conservatives, as the initial coverage and insinuations surrounding the shootings in Arizona revealed, it is skewed much less against them than during Reagan’s time.

To cut through in this media megalopolis, a candidate has to be fierce, in-your-face, asymmetrical, savvy, timely, provocative, and engaging and compelling.

And no candidate has navigated this new media terrain better than Palin.  And, perhaps proving the adage “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” the White House now engages its audience on Twitter.  In his final press conference, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs culled questions from his Twitter feed, and he often answered some of them during his White House briefings.  If not for Palin’s successes in the new media age, the White House pressroom would probably still be one sans hashtags and @ symbols.

In her maiden Facebook post about President Obama’s health care agenda, Palin warned of the threat that potential “death panels” may pose.  With this post, Palin put the White House on retreat, galvanized supporters across the nation against Obama’s health care agenda, and arguably lit the match that enabled Republicans to take back the House of Representatives.

When she accidentally tweeted the word “refudiate,” Palin threw the mainstream media world into a tizzy and off their collective axis.  Refudiate eventually became a word in Oxford ’s dictionary—showing the power of Palin’s influence and reach through Twitter.  This incident also demonstrated how skillful Palin is—purposely or, as in this case, inadvertently—at dominating and blanketing a news cycle with just a single tweet from her Blackberry.

Even when Palin “re-tweets,” which is the Twitter equivalent of simply forwarding an e-mail, she creates a firestorm.  On Jan. 3, Palin re-tweeted a message from lesbian conservative radio show personality Tammy Bruce (@HeyTammyBruce).  Earlier in the day, Bruce had written, “But this hypocrisy is just truly too much. Enuf already—the more someone complains about the homos the more we should look under their bed.”  Palin simply forwarded this message to all her followers, and the mainstream media world immediately began to slice and dice the meaning of those words, and even began to ask whether Palin was expressing her support for some aspects of the gay and lesbian agenda.

Palin often chooses to defend herself fiercely on Twitter, often unfiltered.  She does this because she knows that in the media cycle we live in, defenses are often most effective when they are quick, fierce, and generate buzz to drown out the original criticism.  In Palin’s case, she knows her words will get out to the mass audience faster if they come from her mouth—or her fingers.

Compared with 1980, the media today is a brave new world.  In Iran and Egypt, social networking sites and new media outlets energized citizens fed up with their ruling classes.  Such forces also fueled the Tea Party movement, especially by uniting moms and women across the country.  And though not all of these women are Palin supporters, Palin would still probably refer to them all as “Mama grizzlies.”

Palin probably would not have been successful had she been a politician in Reagan’s era.  And to be fair, Reagan probably would not have been the star politician he was had he come of age in the fragmented media era in which Palin lives.

Palin has mastered this landscape and run circles around her critics.  In the future, Palin will have endless opportunities to harness her acumen to advance policies and lead a political movement.  She may just become to her era what Reagan was to his.