Palin Fails the Test
Sarah Palin's response to the Tucson shooting is defensive, illogical, distracting—and late.
Also in Slate, William Saletan calls out Sarah Palin for the hypocrisy of her "blood libel" remarks. See Slate's complete coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and arrest of Jared Lee Loughner.
Sarah Palin's name has risen and fallen in concert with the Tucson shooting that injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. As Charles Krauthammer argues, she has been unfairly tied to a madman's rampage. Perhaps this is the post-hoc political burden when you traffic in images and talk of guns. Unfair, yes—but then, politics isn't fair. And it's also true that this moment presents an opportunity for Palin. We judge our politicians in part on what they make of unfair circumstances, on how they rise to an occasion.
Palin did not do well. Her statement on the shooting and our political discourse, blasted out on all her social media channels, arrived as the national conversation was moving toward the memorial in Tucson. President Obama will spend the bulk if not all of his remarks Wednesday night talking about the lives that were lost and the heroism on that day.
Almost lost in the rush to understand the shooter and straighten out our politics is another instinct: to account for loss and honor suffering. The first thing I wanted to send out this morning was a link to a poem, "Sorting it Out," by Philip Booth, which is about loss and the way it comes back long after someone has died. In these kinds of horrible moments, the standard bromides about condolences to the victims and their families, while heartfelt, are insufficient. So we're all looking for something more. We're looking for it not just from politicians, of course, but they've got a shot at providing some real understanding.
Palin, who is so expert in capturing the feelings, frustrations and hopes of a certain segment of the population, demonstrated no range. She offered nothing to meet this moment. Her remarks were defensive, illogical, and distracting.
Her use of the term blood libel to categorize the attacks against her and other conservatives was the chatter of the social networks in which she communicates. The term—a slur alluding to the idea that Jews feed on the blood of Christians—was, at the very least, a bad word choice. It did not convey her meaning clearly. She confused or alienated anyone she was trying to convince. And if it was meant to address only her base of core supporters, then it was an act of ill-timed agitation.
Palin effectively quoted Ronald Reagan arguing that the criminal alone is responsible for the crime. "Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own. They begin and end with the criminals who commit them," she said. Good. Then she went on to say that "journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn." Bad. You can't argue that words don't create criminals and then argue in the next breath that, actually, yes, they might.
Another potential 2012 presidential candidate showed how to work around a difficult political moment more deftly. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, under some criticism for recent comments that seemed to downplay the civil rights struggle, has now called for his state to build a museum dedicated to the movement. This may not help Barbour with this problem—but it is at least an effective way of turning lemons into lemonade.
Palin's statement gives her no such benefit. In fact, as a political matter it may even give critics within her own party evidence in the case they want to build against her. They'd never argue that this shooting had anything to do with her (though potential challenger Tim Pawlenty says he never would have used the targeting symbols Palin used). But they would argue, and now can, that when under pressure, she didn't meet her moment—something a candidate and president needs to be able to do.