Between Palin and Palinism


Sarah Palin is not going away; she may or may not run for office -- for the Senate or the presidency -- but in any case she's going to be a part of the political conversation and, like Ross Perot, may play a major role in shaping candidacies and voter preferences. So what exactly is the nature of the Palin phenomenon?  What are the issues she puts on the table? Let me suggest that there are two.

The first is Palin herself: her skills, her persona, her knowledge, her capacity for learning. There are many for whom this matter is settled: she's a boob or she's shrewd. She has real-world insights or suffers from a form of provincial paranoia. In each case, the conclusions are definitive: she is what she is and she is adored or reviled.

It is far from clear, however, that the electorate as a whole has come to a consensus on the essence of Sarah Palin. As a minor member of the chattering class, and thus reckoned free from the constraints of proof, I offer observation and opinion instead. I have come to no real conclusion myself as to Governor Palin's limits. This is partly because, while I, too, was befuddled by her apparent befuddlement on more than one occasion -- I am quite willing to at least consider any proferred excuse that lays the blame on the hapless presidential campaign that drafted her and sent her forth.

She says it was the campaign that decided to run up mind-boggling bills to outfit her for the national convention and subsequent public appearances; that the decision was not hers. She says that campaign managers told her what to confess, what to deny, and what to stonewall in her public appearances. She says, in effect, that the person we saw last Fall was a puppet whose strings were being pulled by people who were dummies themselves and were running John McCain's campaign for the White House. 

I have no way of knowing how much of this to believe -- McCain insiders deny it all -- but in a long career of watching, and being part of, political campaigns, including those of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, I have never seen another as inept as the one assembled by John McCain. At times the McCain campaign resembled a poorly-run race for sixth-grade class president. This predisposes me to believe any accusation of stupidity within that dingy and brain-dead quarter. 

This does not excuse Ms. Palin nor prove the accuracy of her explanations, but it certainly places them within the realm of possibility. Not all of them, to be sure. There were certainly a sufficient number of eye-rolling statements coming from Palin's mouth to make it plausible to raise questions about her intellect and to render her at least semi-culpable in the formation of the unfavorable opinion that dogged her days on the campaign trail. What's more -- sorry, Sarah -- if one professes to be strong enough to hold high office, how do we square that with a self-portrayal as a poor helpless victim of mindless string-pullers? What, you couldn't say no? 

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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