I hadn't seen Sarah Palin speak in person since the 2008 elections. If one just watched or read mainstream media accounts of her paid speeches and appearances since then, including some accounts that have been featured on this site, one may have come to the conclusion that Palin was just a money-hungry ex-politician devoid of conviction, half-heartedly speaking to various interest groups and causes to line her pockets or raise her national profile to peddle books that she didn't even write herself.
Curious about how such memes can develop among supposedly intelligent commentators (most of whom are on the left, but the right has its fair share too), I went to Palin's speech in Washington, D.C. on Friday, where she spoke at a breakfast hosted by The Susan B. Anthony List, an extremely influential pro-life organization.
Nowhere did I see a caricature of a bumbling dolt just going through the motions. What I did hear was substance. Warmth. Humor. Unapologetic feistiness. And an optimistic belief in conservative values and principles. And what I saw was the makings of a potentially transcendent and transformational figure not only for the conservative movement but for American politics.
I don't know if Palin wants to or intends to run for President. And though her speech was delivered to those who would most likely comprise her base if she chose to run, this speech - perhaps more than any of her others - showcased some themes for a potential campaign against Democrats, liberals, and President Obama that would be more than formidable and could possibly attract a fair number of independent voters as well. It definitely struck me as a rough draft of something larger down the road.
1. Palin as the "Mama Bear" defending America's children from "generational theft."
As Barack Obama and Democrats spend more money, as the country goes more into debt, as the specter of inflation gets near, it goes without saying that voters will care more about the deficit and fiscal responsibility, and they will demand politicians do something about it. Americans often tell pollsters they worry that their children will be the first generation of children who won't do better than their parents, and they often cite America's crippling debt as one of the primary reasons for their pessimism. If Palin can convince voters - old and young - that she is indeed the proverbial "mama bear" fighting to restore an America where parents leave behind for their children an America that is in better shape than the one they inherited from their parents, it would resonate powerfully.
2. Palin as a "frontier feminist."
The frontier has always been a powerful symbol in American politics. But Palin personifies this theme in way unlike any other previous politician. As she alluded to in her speech, women on the frontier have always been ahead of the curve; Palin made reference to how frontier women fought for suffrage before it became popular among the more educated classes on the east coast. She made references to frontier women having to "do it all" in defining her version of a new feminism and then connected the Tea Party movement to mothers, sensing in their guts when something is wrong, "rising up." The more Palin can convince independent voters to align themselves with the frontier ethos, as opposed to the technocratic model associated with Obama that promises competence but may not always deliver on it, the more powerful this message will get.
But the frontier may represent a more powerful meme in the coming decade for yesterday's frontier is today's and tomorrow's exurbs, a place where middle class Americans escape crowded cities and suburbs to better their lots in life. These voters don't want government to get in the way of their economic aspirations but also want government to ensure that they wont' be, for lack of a better term, "screwed" by corporations that can sometimes be just as stifling as an oppressive government. Call them Tea Partiers. Or cloth-coat conservatives. Or Reagan Democrats. Or voters who call themselves conservative and not Republican. These voters and those who identify with this spirit have swung every election since 1980.
If anyone had any doubts which side of the city/exurbia debate Palin was on, it is worth nothing that in the same week in which Barack Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court may have been a symbol of Obama as the ultimate urban, city dweller, Palin firmly planted her flag in small towns and exurbia when she urged an Illinois high school girl's basketball team to "play ball" in reference to the school's boycott of Arizona over Arizona's recently passed illegal immigration laws.
Yet for conservatives, it's Palin's style that earns her "street cred" and makes her beloved. It's her unflinching embrace of her values and conservatism, something she proudly wears on her sleave, that convince conservatives that Palin, in her heart, is "one of them." And it's her willingness to toy with, mock, taunt liberals that endears her even more. To use professional wrestling jargon, Palin is the conservative "baby-face" reveling in attacking the hated liberal "heels."
1. She can testify.
Just as Obama spoke the language of Black and urban America in churches and on the stump, Palin speaks the language of social conservatives. Her personal experiences, especially the birth of her son Trig, and those of her daughter, Bristol (in a lighthearted moment, Palin told the audience that Bristol advocates abstinence by telling teenagers they should hit "pause before play"), make her testimony about being "pro-life" more powerful and moving. When Palin shared some of her more personal experiences and struggles with the audience, the room became hushed, the audience noticeably captivated. To state the obvious, these stories signal to social conservatives that Palin has walked the walk.
2. She attacks Obama.
On Friday, Palin first attacked Obama subtly by invoking Margaret Thatcher's quote, "If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman." Of course, implicit in this is that Obama may score points for having the better rhetorical flourishes but Palin can actually put the country on a better footing.
And she also attacked him directly, calling Obama the "most pro-abortion" President ever and calling for more leaders - unlike President Obama - who "don't vote present for an issue" and for whom issues concerning life are "not above one's pay grade." When attacking Obama, Palin has an underdog, feisty style about her that permeates the room. In attacking Obama, conservatives get the sense that Palin is punching fearlessly up in her weight class and they find her more endearing because of it.
3. She relishes attacking liberals.
Palin finds glee in attacking liberals. Their lifestyles. The cars they drive. Their highbrow ways. And she finds joy when describing herself as an Annie Oakley or a redneck. This is when she often seems to be most on top of her game. On Friday, when praising those associated with The Susan B. Anthony List for inspiring women to see feminism from another perspective, she contrasted her "frontier feminism" with the feminism associated with "faculty clubs (said in a mocking tone)," a direct shot at intellectuals in elite ivory towers who would thumb their noses at Palin and would seriously consider moving to Canada if someone from Palin's stock became President.
4. And she's optimistic.
Most importantly, though, Palin hardly seems like someone who is on the verge of post-partem depression. She's cheerful. She's punchy and feisty. She's optimistic. She's hopeful. And it comes across not just in person but also on the more important small screen.
After Palin finished her speech, I again thought about why left-leaning commentators mock, dismiss, and caricaturize her. And two things came to mind.
First, these critics probably have never fully listened to any of her speeches. Rather, like Attorney General Eric Holder, who recently admitted that he went on Meet The Press to criticize a law - Arizona's recently passed immigration laws - that he has not even read or been briefed about, these critics are merely parroting popular misconceptions about Palin and thinking they are original and smart in doing so.
But I think there's something else at work here. I think liberals and those in the mainstream media fear her. Sure, they openly say she has no chance of beating President Obama - if she even runs, that is; but, inside, they must fear that she could very well beat President Obama in a one-on-one match-up. And unlike previous Republicans whose conservatism has been diluted once they got to Washington, Palin does not seem to care in the least what the establishment class - on both sides of the aisle - thinks of her. If she does come to Washington, her conservatism and convictions won't get watered down. She'll come to Washington to change it and not let Washington change her. In the end, this, more than anything, is what scares the left-leaning members of the establishment and chattering class. And also why conservatives gravitate towards and are willing to fight harder for her.