The Undefeated: What the new Sarah Palin documentary gets right, and wrong, about her politics.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
June 10 2011 5:15 PM

Palin's Coming Attractions

What the new Sarah Palin documentary gets right, and wrong, about her politics.

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But it's not that easy for public figures to change how people think about them. If it was, there'd be a run on Deloreans and they'd all be doing it. The Palin in Bannon's file footage is undeniably, admirably brutal on fellow Republicans who line their pockets. She's also a populist who wants oil companies to give more of their profits to Alaskan taxpayers—and succeeds. Palin keeps taxes low as mayor of Wasilla, and the movie shows local news reports on businesses flocking to the town. But we're not convinced that her tax rates had more to do with that than the fact that housing in the city was far cheaper than housing 45 minutes down the highway to Anchorage. Bannon also deploys clip after clip of file footage of Wasilla's infrastructure improvements under Palin: pipe being laid, men in hardhats carrying girders, families playing in parks. Democrats could grab it all and use it in ads for the stimulus bill.

Now: Compare that with the rhetoric and goals of the Tea Party movement, or of a wing of the Republican Party for which oil taxes and private-public infrastructure projects—when debated in Washington—are rejected out of hand as European-style socialism. If the movie's going to boost Palin as a national figure (Bannon told reporters that he wants her "voice" in the presidential race, at least), how do we extrapolate from the Alaska record? What other state has Alaska's resources? Where else do Republicans tear up their copies of The Road to Serfdom and cut deals with Democrats to regulate business?

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It's a rhetorical question, and the 2011 version of Palin doesn't provide any answers. In Bannon's narrative, Palin was pilloried because liberals and Republicans feared what she'd do in Washington. The movie excerpts her 2008 RNC convention speech at length (all of the title cards are quotes from that speech). Palin-haters say it was a performance; Bannon sees it as the culmination of her career thus far. We see vicious attacks on Palin, but only certain kinds of attacks—substance-less, personal, stupid, sexist ones. When Chris Matthews tells his audience that Palin bought new clothes at Nordstrom, Bannon uses file footage of giggly girls jumping up and down with shopping bags. He uses the same footage when Palin's last Wasilla mayoral opponent mocks her as a "spice girl" who shops at "Neiman's." The message: It's the same playbook, and liberals got nothin'. If the argument is that plenty of Palin-hatred is stupid, sexist, and unfounded, Bannon wins.

But that's not all that liberals say about Palin. One line of argument is that she reassigned Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan after he failed to fire her ex-brother-in-law, and while one report absolved Palin, one didn't. Another is that she gets thrown wildly off course by attacks and obsesses over them to the detriment of what she's working on. There's an e-mail record that shows that—a record that might get longer as more e-mails are released.

What do we see on-screen? A quick report on how the ethics complaints filed in 2009, before Palin resigned, were baseless, and Palin's former spokeswoman saying the governor got "Alinsky'd." The resignation, one of the biggest mysteries about Palin and biggest impediments to her national role, is explained away in the terms that Palin originally explained it away: She just couldn't serve the people of Alaska while answering the frivolous charges.

The narrative then leaves Alaska. Palin gets credit for sparking the Tea Party movement. Andrew Breitbart calls conservatives who won't defend Palin "eunuchs," and Mark Levin says conservatives should ignore the advice of any conservative who didn't support Ronald Reagan. The ambitious, winning governor metamorphizes into the Mama Grizzly that liberals hate. Hold on: Is there some way for her to get back the bipartisan mojo she had in Alaska? Is there a better reason why she left office? No answer. The movie's over.

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