JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 21, 2010
There's a fascinating Jonathan Martin story about Sarah Palin over at Politco today. Here's the gist of it:
The election is two weeks away, but the campaign trail reviews of Sarah Palin already are in, and they aren’t pretty.
According to multiple Republican campaign sources, the former Alaska governor wreaks havoc on campaign logistics and planning. She offers little notice about her availability, refuses to do certain events, is obsessive about press coverage and sometimes backs out with as little lead time as she gave in the first place.
In short, her seat-of-the-pants operation can be a nightmare to deal with.
OK. What are we (that is, we the political observers -- in particular, those of us interested in 2012, and who believe that Palin is a legit contender, neither a shoo-in nor an impossibility for the GOP nomination) to make of stories like this? How should one read Politico?
The first order of business is to see if there's any meat to the story. I think it passes the test. There are quite a few anecdotes reported, and they do a good job of supporting the thesis that Palin's operation is still amateur hour. What I thought was pretty good was that Martin avoids gender stereotypes -- he doesn't portray Palin as a diva, but just as someone who needs a few more seasoned operatives.
There's also a believable (which doesn't mean it's true!) theory of why she runs things the way that she does: she's obsessed with loyalty, and would rather sacrifice efficiency in her camp than risk letting in someone who will sell her out. Given her experience with McCain-supplied campaign professionals, that's not all that surprising; given her experiences over the last couple years, it's easy to imagine that from her perspective everything seems to be running exceptionally well, reinforcing her impulse to trust her own judgment rather than that of Washingtonians who dismissed her in 2008 and since.
So at face value, it's an interesting and plausible story, reinforcing the idea that there's quite some question as to whether the Sage of Wasilla will be willing and able to do the sort of things that candidates for major party nominations have always had to do.
Now, take a step back. Why are Republican operatives feeding negative stories about Palin to Politico two weeks before the midterm elections? I certainly don't know, but that's my first reaction when I read the story. Are they trying to deflate her as a 2012 contender? If so, is it because other candidates have friends around the country? Could be. Is it because many GOP insiders read the polls, and think she's poison for the party? Could be. Is it because Republicans are at heart hierarchical and traditional, and just really can't stomach this crazy person...ahem, this crazy woman, from nowheresville, who just doesn't look like what they think a President of the United States should look? I don't know. I thought it was certainly very interesting that Chuck Grassley's campaign was identified by name; Grassley has an easy reelection bid right now and doesn't have to face a primary for six years, so he's pretty safe from retribution, and he may be reminding not just Palin but all prospective candidates to pay proper fealty to him as the caucuses approach. Don't forget the obvious possibility that perhaps it's just straightforward: she really does have an incompetent operation, which has repeatedly burned and angered so many people that it's produced a subset willing to talk to a good, aggressive, reporter. Again, could be.
The point is that when reading these stories, always think about why people talk to reporters, and why these particular sources talked to this reporter about this particular topic.
Another step back. Why is Politico doing the story, in the first place? Well, that's an easy one: Palin, we all know, sells. I don't really know why, but I do know it's true. So when reading Martin's story I want to ask myself again: is this really news? If Romney or Pawlenty's operations had similar logistics troubles, would I be hearing about it? Would I be hearing the same things about it?
As with questions about sources, I don't really have answers to the questions about the reporter or Politico itself, other than just to remind myself as I read it that there's a serious, heavy, media bias in favor of seeking out and running stories about Sarah Palin. Every gaffe, every mix-up, every good line, has a good chance of being reported. As observers, we need to remember that, and be aware of what it does to our perceptions of her compared to our perceptions of the other candidates.