Wayne O’Leary

The Palin Effect

Sarah Palin is a bit like Wile E. Coyote in the old Road Runner cartoons of a few years back. She races hell-bent off a cliff and should immediately plummet downward, but somehow, legs pumping, she stays suspended in air pending reality taking hold. At this writing, the Alaska governor remains airborne, prompting the obvious question: What’s keeping her up?

John McCain’s vice-presidential selection decision was at once crazy and inspired. It was crazy in the sense that Palin is an obvious know-nothing, disarmingly glib and supremely self-confident, but utterly ignorant when it comes to government policy and world affairs, and rather proud of it.

In a particularly mind-bending exercise in self-delusion, she and her supporters tout Alaska’s proximity to Russia, across the Bering Strait, as proof that she understands foreign policy. By that measure, any of the 15 governors whose states border Canada or Mexico qualify as diplomatic experts and should be on a national ticket.

McCain could have done as well making his v.p. pick down at the local mall by surveying passing female shoppers (female to attract the elusive Hillary vote) until one appeared with the requisite qualities: down-home appearance and demeanor, white working-class roots, spunky personality, alluring yet maternal persona—a “Wal-Mart mom,” as some have said. Throw in a non-elitist accent reminiscent of the Coen brothers movie Fargo, and you have the complete package. The McCain camp has let slip that the campaign will be about personality, not issues.

Superficiality is all, and Palin is nothing if not superficial. She’s strictly there to help McCain win, not to govern should the 72-year-old, cancer-surviving head of the ticket succumb in office.

That’s the crazy part: What happens if a President McCain dies in harness? But there’s also an inspired part, politically speaking. Palin brings the Republican base—the social conservatives and Christian right—back to the GOP fold. Her inexperience and lack of depth are balanced by a devotion to an extremist right-wing agenda calculated to excite and motivate those in the party formerly suspicious of the more secular and (by reputation at least) moderate McCain. The barely installed Alaska governor and former small-town mayor has the right stuff for culture- war conservatives; she’s anti-abortion, pro-creationism, opposed to stem-cell research, in favor of home-schooling, suspicious of global-warming claims, and unenthusiastic about environmental initiatives to save endangered species. And she believes energy development of the pristine Arctic and our presence in Iraq have been ordained by God. Shades of George W!

Returning to the original question (What’s keeping Palin up in the polls?), the answer resides with two factors, media hype and public perception. As to the first, the mavens of the mainstream press are clearly infatuated with Palin. Perhaps gaga is the better word. She’s a woman (Goodness!), a working mother (Gracious sakes alive!), someone from the Great White North (Be still my heart!). She approves wolf-hunting from planes, shoots and dresses moose, and tells people off (Wowser!). And she’s passably cute, if you can get past the rimless glasses and the retro, vaguely ’50s hairdo. What more could a media airhead want? The result: For the short run, it’s been all Palin all the time, with poor Joe Biden (boring white male and official mature person) banished to the Siberia of news coverage.

But there is also something more serious at work here. A generation of center-right governance, during which the two parties occupied adjoining terrain on the conservative side of the ideological spectrum (Republicans to the hard right, Democrats a bit closer to the center), a generation characterized by a mutual consensus favoring market dominance and limited government, has persuaded a significant portion of the public that the difference between the opposing sides is negligible. If the parties appear similarly positioned and philosophically indistinguishable, a vote based on personality makes a perverse sort of sense. In this light, no-nonsense Sarah, the novelty candidate, looks attractive. Vote for someone new, someone like yourself, someone who appears to be regular folks. Who cares where they stand from moment to moment?

Better still, vote maverick. The big lie in this election is that McCain and Palin are “mavericks.” That is, they adhere to no party doctrine or partisan stance, despite being lifelong Republicans. In fact, McCain has voted with George W. Bush an estimated 90% of the time, and Palin’s public utterances place her well within the conservative mainstream and often on its rightward fringe. Both candidates are wary of government, if not outright hostile, and prone to let the deregulated market works its will. Their answer to the Iraq war is to win, not withdraw, and their explanation for the current financial turmoil is that personal corruption, not structural collapse, is afoot. They see nothing fundamentally wrong with the system, merely a need to root out some misbehaving individuals on Wall Street. As for economic stimulation, just cut those upper-level taxes. That’s standard Republican boilerplate.

Sometime prior to this campaign season, John McCain concluded that winning the presidency, his abiding ambition, was all that mattered, and how it was accomplished was of secondary concern. Setting aside any lingering independent convictions and embracing the rigid conservatism of the Bush administration was one compromise with principle; gambling on his own mortality with his pick of a running mate was another. Whatever one may think of Barack Obama, he chose in Joe Biden a competent, experienced individual who really would be ready on Day One in case of the unthinkable. McCain threw caution to the winds and rolled the dice; they came up salt-of-the-earth Sarah, who’s not ready for prime time at any time.

The good news for the country is that the expanded hot air keeping Palin aloft is gradually cooling off and thinning out. Any time now, like Wile E. Coyote, she should become acquainted with the law of gravity and start her downward descent, accelerating as she goes. Look out below.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2008

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