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Palin Reconsidered

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a frequent contributor to a variety of political journals.    

At virtually any given moment, the news-cycle-driven chattering classes of politics have in the background of their computer screens or the pockets of their briefcases a Big Thumbsucking Magazine Article on a political topic that they read during periods of calm. The Big Article du jour is Todd Purdum's massive profile of Sarah Palin in Vanity Fair.

Most of the buzz about the piece deals with a variety of off-the-record snarks about Palin from McCain campaign staff. Indeed, conservative columnist Bill Kristol and McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt have engaged in a public exchange of insults over alleged leaks to Purdham.

Personally, I thought Purdum's best insight was about the exceptionally exotic nature of Palin's home state of Alaska, which he thinks the McCain campaign never understood:

The first thing McCain could have learned about Palin is what it means that she is from Alaska. More than 30 years ago, John McPhee wrote, "Alaska is a foreign country significantly populated with Americans. Its languages extend to English. Its nature is its own. Nothing seems so unexpected as the boxes marked ‘U.S. Mail.'" That description still fits. The state capital, Juneau, is 600 miles from the principal city, Anchorage, and is reachable only by air or sea. Alaskan politicians list the length of their residency in the state (if they were not born there) at the top of their biographies, and are careful to specify whether they like hunting, fishing, or both. There is little sense of government as an enduring institution: when the annual 90-day legislative session is over, the legislators pack up their offices, files, and computers, and take everything home. Alaska's largest newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, maintains no full-time bureau in Juneau to cover the statehouse. As in any resource-rich developing country with weak institutions and woeful oversight, corruption and official misconduct go easily unchecked. Scrutiny is not welcome, and Alaskans of every age and station, of every race and political stripe, unself-consciously refer to every other place on earth with a single word: Outside.

But what bothered me most about the profile was that with so many words to work with, and for all his focus on why McCain was a fool to put her on the ticket, Purdum never gets around to examining in any detail why the Conservative Base loves her so. That's a strange omission, particularly since the whole piece begins with Palin's speech earlier this year at an Indiana Right-to-Life event--significantly, her first public appearance outside Alaska in 2009.

In all the hype and buzz about Palin when she first joined the ticket, and all the silly talk about her potential appeal to Hillary Clinton supporters, the ecstatic reaction to her choice on the Cultural Right didn't get much attention. She wasn't an "unknown" or a "fresh face" to those folks. They knew her not only as a truly hard-line anti-abortionist, but as a politician who had uniquely "walked the walk" by carrying a pregnancy to term despite knowing the child would have a severe disability. And all the personality traits she later exhibited--the folksiness, the abrasive partisanship, the hostility towards the "media" and "elites," the resentment of the establishment Republicans who tried to "manage" her, and the constant complaints of persecution--almost perfectly embodied the world-view, and the hopes and fears, of the grassroots Cultural Right. (This was particularly and understandably true of women, who have always played an outsized role in grassroots conservative activism.) Sarah Palin was the projection of these activists onto the national political scene, and exhibited the defiant pride and ill-disguised vulnerability that they would have felt in the same place.

This base of support for Palin--maybe not that large, but very passionate, and very powerful in places like the Iowa Republican Caucuses--isn't going to abandon her just because the Serious People in the GOP laugh her off in favor of blow-dried flip-flopping pols like Mitt Romney or blandly "electable" figures like Tim Pawlenty. To her supporters, mockery is like nectar. And that's why Sarah Palin isn't going to go away as a national political figure unless it is by her own choice, or that of the people of her own state.

--Ed Kilgore

[Cross-posted at The Democratic Strategist]