A very good friend, who is a lifelong Alaskan and one of the smartest people I know, offers this word of caution to those (yes, like me) inclined to take Sarah Palin lightly:
At the end of 2005, a close friend called to say that he begun writing speeches and talking points for a certain gubernatorial candidate.
"Remind me," I asked. "Who is Sarah Palin?"
I was dismayed at my friend’s choice of political entree. Why was he wasting his time on a relative nobody, trying to beat an incumbent governor (and former three term senator) in the Republican primary? It was utter folly. "Wait until the big money starts coming in for Murkowski," I said. "Wait until the party machinery goes to work on Palin. They will eat her for lunch."
Murkowski, for his part, expressed a similar view. "If I decide to," he said, "I will run and I will win. It's that simple."
The folly, of course, turned out to be my own (and Murkowski's), as Palin slaughtered the incumbent in the primary--posting a 30 point margin of victory--and went on to win the general (over a former Democratic governor) without seeming to break a sweat. She then quickly fulfilled an implicit campaign promise by slapping down ExxonMobil, BP, and ConocoPhillips in negotiations over a proposed Alaska natural gas pipeline, even though they, too, by all accounts, were well prepared to dine on her tender little frame. Not bad for a lightweight.
Listening to the Democratic leadership respond to John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate, one hears echoes of the Alaska Republican leadership from just a few years ago. Barack Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton, put it this way: "Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency." Former mayor? If you're going to skip over her job as governor and, before that, her job heading the commission that oversees production of the largest petroleum reserves in America, why not "former high school student"? Bah, what does it matter: She's just a small town mayor, just a hockey mom, just a beauty pageant queen. Palin has never shunned these belittling monikers, in part, I imagine, because the camouflage has served her so well. Soothed by the litany, her opponents tend to sleep too late, sneer too much, and forget who it is that hires them.
Watching Palin operate over the past few years has been like witnessing a dramatic reading of All the King’s Men. In 2002, Murkowski had interviewed but passed over Palin in selecting a replacement for the senate seat he vacated to become governor. In a grand act of nepotism, he chose his own daughter instead. Palin was tossed a bone: She chaired the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which oversees the production of petroleum in Alaska. When she reported conflicts of interest and other ethical violations by another commissioner, she was ignored by Murkowski’s chief of staff and ultimately resigned in frustration. One can imagine how the quick double dose of corruption--insiders having their way with the polity and its resources--sickened the young Palin. It also fired a savage competitiveness that is not, perhaps, apparent at first glance.
What the Republicans missed about Sarah Palin then--and what the Democrats seem poised to miss now--is that she is a true political savant; a candidate with a knack for identifying the key gripes of the populace and packaging herself as the solution. That keen political nose has enabled her to routinely outperform her resume. Nearly two years into her administration, she still racks up approval ratings of 80 per cent or better.
One might reasonably ask to what extent her local popularity is buoyed by the high price of oil (and thus, a budget surplus, and thus, the ability to carry a stick into meetings with big oil). One might speculate about the durability of her anti-corruption stance in light of her conflict of interest in the dismissal of her director of public safety. And only the truly feckless would not concern themselves about her dearth of foreign policy experience. But in probing this candidate, it would behoove the Democrats and the pundits to shed the notion that they are dealing with some dimwitted bumpkin (Dan Quayle seems to come up a lot lately) who’s going to start crying when they ask her to name the president of Azerbaijan; or that Palin is the townie who was brought into the Skull & Bones initiation night for the amusement of all; or that somehow the prom queen ballots got mixed up with the Alaska gubernatorial poll. Trivialize her at your own peril.
Sarah Palin is a living reminder that the ultimate source of political power in this country is not the Kennedy School or the Davos Summit or an Ariana Huffington salon; even now, power emanates from the electorate itself. More precisely, power in 2008 emanates from the working class electorates of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Sooner or later, the Obama camp will realize that the beauty pageant queen is an enormously talented populist in a year that is ripe for populism. For their own sake, it had better be sooner.
More Palin coverage from TNR:
Peter Scoblic attacks Gov. Sarah Palin's "frighteningly thin resume" and the even more frightening reality of her as the sucessor to the commander-in-chief.Michelle Cottle explains why the Palin pick shouldn't satisfy heart-broken Hillary supporters looking for a strong female candidate and also how Biden needs to tread carefully given the gender issue.Alan Wolfe discusses the complexity of Palin's evangelical faith and the way that Western evangelicals differ from those in the South.Bradford Plumer asks how hard Palin really fought the "Bridge to Nowhere" and what that says about her supposedly reformist credentials.Michael Crowley looks at how Jamie Lynn's recent teen pregnancy could affect how pregnancy of Bristol-gate plays out in the media.