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How Sarah Palin Is Like Ross Perot (and William Jennings Bryan)

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job: Why America's Best Workers Are Unhappier than Ever.

“This is a man who can give an entire speech about the wars America is fighting, and never use the word "victory" except when he's talking about his own campaign,” Sarah Palin said of Barack Obama in her acceptance speech Wednesday night.

So here’s another word-count: Palin used the word “reform” at least seven times in her remarks. And she didn’t use the word “Republican” even once.

To borrow a phrase Palin used, “News flash”: The McCain-Palin ticket sounds like it’s running not as Republicans but as members of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. Back in 1992, with voters recoiling against the first President Bush, Perot’s Party preached a right-wing populism that bashed Big Government but was patriotically pro-military and also embraced the cult of the corporate CEO. As it happened, Palin’s Alaska was Perot’s strongest state that year--he won 28 percent of the vote. His running mate was a former prisoner of war, retired Vice Admiral James Stockdale. His volunteer coordinator was Orson Swindle, who played a prominent part in this year’s Republican convention. And his rhetoric was echoed by Palin and quite likely will also infuse John McCain’s acceptance speech Thursday night.

Unlike the tongue-tied Stockdale, Palin was endearing and eloquent, and it’s worth exploring the roots of her rhetoric. As the warm-up act for the former mayor of Wasilla, the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, blasted Barack Obama as "the least qualified candidate for President in at least the last 100 years."

Rudy Giuliani didn’t flesh out his history lesson. But, exactly 100 years ago, the Democrats nominated, for the third time, a populist former one-term Nebraska Congressman, William Jennings Bryan, who had made his reputation as “the boy orator”  with a stirring speech at the party’s convention in 1896 when he was only 36. In her acceptance speech, Palin paid tribute to the hardworking people of small-town America “who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.”

This contrast of western rural virtue with eastern urban decadence is straight out of Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, as was much of Wednesday night’s Republican oratory--as long as you forget that Bryan was also a pacifist, an advocate of public ownership of the power companies, and, uncomfortable as he was with big cities, a would-be ally of the early labor movement. As his biographer, Michael Kazin, writes in A Godly Hero, while left-wing populists can claim to be the heirs to what the substance of what Bryan stood for, right-wing populists have borrowed his fire-and-brimstone style to scorch cultural elites, from Harvard to Hollywood.

So it was that a procession of speakers--some of them affluent easterners like former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney--went to the podium Wednesday night to attack the news media, the Ivy League colleges, and government bureaucrats, but not the moneyed interests who were Bryan’s real targets. For her part, Palin presented herself as the heir to Bryan, Perot, and maybe Mother Jones as well: the schoolteacher’s daughter, steelworker’s wife, and “hockey mom” who got active in the PTA, was elected mayor, and became a “reform”-oriented Governor who tamed the political elites in the state capital and can do the same in the nation’s capital.

Watching Romney look like one of the unctuous fat cats whom Bryan blasted and Giuliani and Huckabee sound like supporting acts for the Republicans’ newest star, it was instantly understandable why McCain selected Palin. She can make a teleprompter speech sound like her own, she smiles while she lets loose a zinger, and by using the phrases “common good” and “servant’s heart,” she can do what Bryan never did: appeal to urban Catholics as well as rural evangelicals. While she fires up the Republican base, her rhetoric transcends her party. She invoked Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy but not any Republican president. The villains of her personal story are the members of the Republican “old boy network”--a populist phrase with feminist resonances--whom she defeated in a primary election and kept confronting once in office.

In one more way, the evening echoed Perot’s pinstripe populism. Before McCain’s defeated rivals spoke, the featured speakers were Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, two women who competed successfully in corporate America. The subtext: In an election with three Senators seeking national office, this woman who served as a mayor and a Governor knows how to run things.

Not like that radical Midwestern “community organizer”--whose credentials Giuliani compared to Bryan’s record and whose credibility Palin attacked with Bryan’s rhetoric. Now it’s up to Joe Biden to play Clarence Darrow.

--David Kusnet

Related: More from TNR on Sarah Palin's Big Convention Speech