One of the greatest fishing expeditions ever mounted took place this weekend in Alaska, and not one of its participants set foot in a boat. Instead the anglers were combing through 24,000 bits of old news in hopes of…just what, exactly?
A freedom of information lawsuit has resulted in the release of thousands of emails from Sarah Palin’s days as governor. In a display not dissimilar to the baying hounds on a fox’s scent, reporters from 30 news organizations and three camera crews flocked to Juneau to get their hands on the emails. Several, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, scanned all 24,299 paper documents into an online database and overtly invited their readers to review them and comment.
To what end? Sarah Palin holds no political office, and she is not an announced candidate for any. She is very popular on the speaker circuit, and is an infrequent commentator on Fox News; she has flirted with the idea of running for President, but she has not made the slightest movement toward building an organization for it. Really, nothing among her current activities would render newsworthy anything that anyone might find among these messages. Except, of course, if something truly salacious were found, and the hounds could bloody their teeth with some good old character assassination.
This reaction is so over-the-top, it invites one of my favorite thought experiments: what if the circumstances were switched? Suppose, for instance, that Howard Dean, another ex-governor and erstwhile candidate for the national ticket, had similarly released a stash of three- and four-year old emails. Unlike Palin, Dean held a position of real impact after his campaign failed – he was the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. But is it remotely possible that anyone would even notice, never mind sending teams of crack reporters to spend hours combing through old stuff? Of course not.
What is it about Sarah Palin that gets the MSNBC’s and the Washington Posts of the country in such a lather?
I think there are actually two questions, one for Republicans to answer, and one for the country at large. For Republicans, the question is to explain Palin’s attraction. For many Republicans, she is trouble rather than savior. And yet, she draws bigger crowds than any announced candidate. The second question is probably more fun: how is it that she gets under some people’s skin so much that even when she is not running for anything she remains an obsession, like Moby Dick to Ahab?
In a recent Rasmussen poll, Palin is viewed by 63% of potential voters as unqualified to be President. Why, then, is she such a factor in this primary season? The very possibility of her running throws electoral calculations into a vortex. She has become a kingmaker in the party, and could well be a critical influence in the choice of the next candidate even if she herself does not run. And yet, many within the party despair at the thought that she might inject herself into the mix. Establishment conservatives even doubt if she has the intelligence for high office. (Needless to say, their opposite numbers among liberals have no question at all on the matter.)
Many people, myself included, listen to Palin talk – her “you betcha’s,” for instance, or the way she emphasizes prepositions instead of nouns (“We need to get back to the principles of the free market…”) – and think, I can’t take this woman seriously. Much of what she says in interviews is platitudes and sound bites that don’t have the thoughtful ring of, say, Paul Ryan. And yet, she sounds equally unpersuasive when she talks about energy policy (“drill, baby, drill”), and that is clearly an area where she has expertise. Before she was 40, she was appointed to chair the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, overseeing the state’s most important resource.
So I think she may be one of those unfortunates in this media-soaked political environment whose speaking style obscures the smarts underneath. She certainly held her own in the one vice-presidential debate against Joe Biden in 2008, and remember how everyone assumed she was going to be crushed by the veteran debater? She’s no dummy.
But I think the secret of Palin’s appeal is that for millions of conservatives, she is viewed as one of them – not the polished, Ivy-League Romney types, not the brainy Newt Gingrich types, but someone who you might run into shopping at Wal-Mart. They are not bothered by her lack of fluency, because they feel it in their bones that she knows them, knows their issues, and will be their spokeswoman in Washington. After all, the professional types have been running Washington for decades, and look where that’s gotten us.
It’s a classic populist insurgency. The establishment types hate populists, and they hate insurgents, but this one they need because she can energize millions. And she speaks with the voice of the Tea Party, the most motivated and consequential grass-roots group in American politics today. So she is a kingmaker, even though she has little chance of being queen herself.
So then the question becomes, how is it that the mainstream media are so twisted in their obsession with all things Palin? It started at the very beginning, when she burst like a nova on the national stage as John McCain’s running mate. Almost immediately the ad hominem attacks began, going so far as to question whether her new baby was her own or her daughter’s. She was subject to the kind of vilification rarely visited upon anyone since, well, come to think of it, George W. Bush.
And there I think is at least some kind of an explanation. There is something in the psyche of certain liberals that elevates opposition to certain political figures to something approaching the pathological. It’s like it’s not enough to do combat in the arena of ideas – these people seem to develop a genuine revulsion to the target’s very person. I remember hearing one progressive saying about Bush, “I just hate to hear him talk.”
Over time the emotional reaction slides into something akin to paranoia. Liberal friends of mine professed to being afraid, literally afraid, during the Bush years, although I could never get a straight answer as to what they were afraid about. But people imagined that the Patriot Act was being used to validate wholesale violation of people’s civil rights, some going so far as to predict that Bush would find a way to nullify the election process and maintain himself in power.
We called it Bush Derangement Syndrome. And now that W is no longer on the scene, it’s almost like this personal/political revulsion has to be transferred to someone else: Palin Derangement Syndrome.
Much to the secret disappointment of the most rabid, I’m sure, there was no attempt at a Bush Putsch in 2008. Similarly, the deflation is almost audible when the supposed treasure trove of Palin-in-the-raw resulted in not one iota of usable dirt, but rather painted a picture of “an idealistic, conscientious, humorous and humane woman slightly bemused by the world of politics,” according to Britain’s Telegraph.
Nevertheless, undeterred and unabashed by this failure Ahab sets his sails for further pursuit of his quarry, across the seven seas if necessary.