I realize that at this point it's ridiculous to treat Bill Kristol as anything other than an intellectually dishonest apologist for his pal John McCain. Still, he is a prominent pundit who is presumably still taken seriously by someone somewhere, and so I feel compelled to take issue with his remarks in Mo Dowd's column today. Asked about his increasingly lonely cheerleading of Sarah Palin, Kristol snipped:
Conservative eggheads are my friends, but politically they're a contrarian indicator. If they're down on Palin, things are looking up for her. With all due respect for my fellow eggheads, they are underestimating the importance of a natural political gift or star quality. It matters a lot.
I see where Kristol is coming from. I've worked with some fantastic liberal eggheads over the years at TNR, and on multiple occasions found myself arguing the personality-vincit-omnia theory of presidential politics with one of my more cerebral, policy-minded colleagues.Of course natural political talent matters enormously. (Does anyone believe Obama would be where he is today if he weren't cooler than cool?) But it is not the only factor voters take into the account--not even the low-information Joe Six-Pack voters whose backsides Palin and Kristol are so noisily smooching in their bizarre culture war.
Palin is popular with the GOP base because of both her style and her message. She has put her natural political talent in the service of delivering a nasty, brutish, us-vs-them, book-larnin'-is-for-suckers, everything-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-vacation-bible-school assault on the opposition that suits the scared, desperate, angry mood of her followers. Noam's excellent look at Palin's proud history of bitterness and petty vengeance toward anyone suspected of looking down on her suggests this is the most perfectly suited message Palin could ever be asked to deliver. She is an authentic, 100 percent natural culture warrior who knows how to stoke grievances in others because she harbors so many herself.
But moving from base-agitator to broadly appealing star will take more than a bushel of resentment. To have a future on the national stage, Palin will need to expand her set of political tools. For instance, she will need to be able to name a magazine or newspaper. (Not necessarily read one, just name one.) She will need to learn to answer tough questions with something other than a whine about "gotcha journalism." And she will need to learn how to duck tough questions with something more than a wink and a smile--if for no other reason than women, who comprise a majority of the electorate, find such quasi-coquettishness vastly less endearing than men. (Yes, Rich "Starbursts" Lowry, I'm thinking of you.)
If Kristol would bother to get his head out of his...McCain strategy emails...for a minute, he'd notice that eggheads aren't the only group with whom Palin is playing badly. The situation has not yet reached the point, as he suggests, that intellectuals' dislike of her means that everyone else adores her. Palin's poll numbers have been on the slide for weeks now and, while she is overwhelmingly seen as "down-to-earth," she is also regarded as about as qualified as my big toe to run the country. There aren't enough intellectuals in this great nation to account for her falling ratings. Clearly, Palin's cutesy culture-war shtick has left even some regular folks cold.
I have no doubt (well, maybe some doubt) that Palin could grow into a formidable, if still dangerously divisive, national player if she put her mind to it. But my guess is that, the more that blind defenders like Kristol argue that her strength lies in her aggressive Everygalness, the less likely it is that Palin will bother with the hard work necessary to make those changes. Just look at Fred Barnes' recent hilarious defense: "Her handlers were part of the problem....When she choked in the television interviews, they blamed her. Even McCain was miffed to find she wasn't reading newspapers and keeping up on daily events." Yes. How unreasonable to hold Palin accountable for her own failed appearances. Worse still, how dare McCain expect her to keep up with current affairs! Doesn't he recall that she was chosen specifically to look pretty and talk ugly?
mean, why on earth would Palin bother to learn about foreign policy or
the economy when everyone is telling her that her political uniqueness
lies in the fact that she has the same uninformed, common-sense world
view as Big Larry who runs the soft-serve machine down at the Dairy
Queen? Stay simple, Sarah! You rock!
If Kristol, Barnes, et al really want to see Palin do well, they'd do well to stop feeding her victim-of-elite-snobbery self-image and urge her to acknowledge her existing limitations and at least start figuring out what it is she doesn't know--the "unknown unknowns," to quote a great American. Don't cheer her for being an charismatic know-nothing. Scold her into pursuing the whole package.
again, since I don't particularly want Palin to have a political future
in the lower 48, forget everything I've just said. Indeed, my advice to
the governor is to immediately sign up Kristol to be her chief
booster/advisor going forward. Maybe he can do for her career what he's
done as unofficial counselor to McCain this year. Fingers crossed!