Sarah Palin Is the New Al Gore
The right's answer to the left's biggest political celebrity.
A portion of Sarah Palin's speaking contract has been discovered. In it she requests that at the podium she get bendable straws for her two water bottles. When she flies, it must be first class (or on a midsize private jet); her cars must be SUVs or "black town cars," and she must be put up in a suite at the kinds of hotels where the packages of nuts in the mini-bar cost more than the average hourly wage.
Your reaction to this probably depends on your position on the political spectrum. If you are a liberal, you see it as proof that Palin is no "hockey mom" and that her humble persona was a fraud. If you are a conservative, you see it as proof that the free market has decreed that the Palin brand is more valuable than ever. (If you are fond of maxims, you are simply puzzled. Quitters never prosper, we're told, and yet Palin, who left her job with 17 months to go in her first term, has made $12 million since doing so, according to ABC News.)
But if you step back and judge Palin by the standards of other celebrities and reality-show hosts, the contract seems pretty benign. She didn't demand white roses or call for a police escort. * She doesn't ask that all televisions be tuned to Fox, like the man she wanted to succeed as vice president. She does ask that questions at her events be screened—which, given how thoroughly packaged presidential "town hall" performances are, should be considered a standard political request.
Still, it is by the celebrity, not the political standard, that Palin should be judged. She is a personality—influential, polarizing, and not likely to be president—who talks about political affairs. In other words, she's a lot like Al Gore.
To require her to follow the rules that politicians have to follow—to pretend to like pork rinds to show the common touch—seems unfair. This is true even though part of her performance is to pretend she's the person she once was. And it is no more a denial of her past than Gore's present wealth obscures his experiences as a young man on the family farm.
There are obvious ways in which the Gore analogy breaks down. But they only add more to the case that Palin is influential but not presidential. Gore has more political and governmental experience and has spent much of his adult life promoting a set of ideas through writing, lecturing, and PowerPoint presentations. In the most recent poll of his popularity (2008), 58 percent of those asked had a favorable view of him. Palin is not popular. She has only a 24 percent favorability rating in the latest CBS poll. Nor has she chosen to promote a set of original ideas: She more refracts and channels them.
Palin's unpopularity has been resilient. Her favorability and unfavorability ratings—the latter is 38 percent, about the same as Gore's—have not moved since she left the Alaska governor's office last July. In a Washington Post poll in February, 71 percent of respondents said she was not qualified to be president. In the recent CBS poll of Tea Party supporters, a plurality did not think she was qualified to be president. Finally, if independent voters, who are likely to determine the next election, come to the conclusion that they do not like President Obama, some large portion may do so because they have decided that it's a bad idea to elect people with little governing experience who can excite crowds. Sarah Palin is not going to be their candidate. As a political matter, if Palin is able to overcome these political challenges while speaking her mind as clearly as she does now, people should start lining up the sick and the lame for healings.
Defining Palin as a political celebrity is not to say that she lacks connection or influence with the people she speaks for. But drinks before takeoff and high-thread-count sheets do not necessarily affect her relationship with her audience. Oprah Winfrey is very exacting and very wealthy and yet still has a vast following of regular people. She used her popularity to help Barack Obama. No one would think her request for bendable straws out of line. It might be galling to some that Palin makes so much money by talking so much about regular folk. But is she really any different from a musician who makes millions by singing about the working class?
If you want to think about how Republicans will govern in the real world or look at the GOP philosophy in practice, there are vibrant examples to examine in New Jersey, Mississippi, California, and Virginia. In these places, conservatives are struggling to put ideas into practice that require real trade-offs and bring real consequences. These places are a better starting point for a legitimate debate about conservative politics and policy.
Sarah Palin may be living the American dream, but she is a different person than she once was, and becomes more so with every plush engagement. We'll know she's truly crossed over when those who go through the trash looking for Palin relics don't give them to the news media but try to sell them on eBay.