The Magazine

The Palin Effect

Her enemies are bellowing like a wounded moose.

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Now that the dust is beginning to settle from the whirlwind descent of Hurricane Sarah, it may be time to stand back a little and assess in perspective what the moose-hunting beauty from Wasilla, Alaska, has wrought. Things will change between now and November, but she has already had a sizeable impact, and four major themes do stand out:

1. Call off the funeral. Three weeks ago, the wisdom was that the conservative movement was over and done with. It had burned itself out, taking the Republican party down with it, and setting the stage for the biggest explosion of liberal governance since perhaps the New Deal. Ever since November 2006, when the roof quite deservedly fell in on the Republican Congress, liberals have declared that the Reagan Era--first pronounced dead in 1982, then in 1986, then in 1988, then in 1992, then again in 1998-2000, and of course dead for good in 2006--was at long last finally going to receive the burial it deserved.

Around the deathbed, fierce battles broke out, about what was to be done and who was to do it, whether the movement should trend left, right, or center, whether the movement needed to take on new ideas or strip down instead to some idealized prior condition, circa 1994, circa 1980, or even 1964. Battles broke out over issues domestic and foreign; solutions were bruited that urged purging, if not amputation, of competing and varying wings. It was the fault of the right, or the fault of the center; the fault of the theocons, the fault of the neocons, or the fault of the libertarians, who didn't feel people's pain. The Reagan coalition was there in its elements, but divided, like Gaul, into three different parts: There was a preacher, Mike Huckabee; a hawk, John McCain; and an entrepreneur, Mitt Romney. Each annoyed part of the base, and no one thrilled that many. Meanwhile, the party brand languished. Everyone assumed it would take years in the wilderness before it all came together. Then, as of midday on August 29, all of this changed.

McCain's surprise pick of Sarah Palin easily surpassed Bill Clinton's 1992 pick of Al Gore as one of the few transformational choices in modern political history, one of the few that recast and updated the image of the party, changed for the better the way that the head of the ticket was seen by the public, and made the whole ticket more than the sum of its parts. It rebranded the party and fused it together, focused a light on the new generation, and was McCain's make-up nod to the base of his party. He didn't apologize to the base for his previous heresies, didn't promise he might not dismay them with some new ones, but he signaled that he did not see them as enemies, that they were, in spite of their differences, on the same team.

Palin united the right and center, the base and the mavericks, proving the key is not conformity, but a set of large common interests around which different parts, keeping their differences, still can cohere. In this context, it seems now that the message of the 2006 midterms was widely misread. It was not a rejection of the entire conservative project, but of the scandals and misdeeds with which it was burdened: Mark Foley/Jack Abramoff; Hurricane Katrina; the post-invasion mistakes in Iraq. People wanted Change after 2006, and Change was what they got. Bush changed his Iraq policy and seems now on the verge of attaining a victory. He changed his response to domestic disasters, and the new spate of hurricanes has been handled impeccably, with a major assist from Republican governors. Few Republicans have misbehaved lately, at least since Larry Craig was caught tapping his feet at the airport, and the more flagrant scandals have afflicted the Democrats. In the wake of the Palin pick, the numbers in the generic polls started to shift: edging away from Democratic preponderance that prevailed from late 2006 onward, swinging back to the 50-50 (or 49-49, or 51-49) balance that existed through most of the past decade. Republicans may not win, but they will not receive the massive rebuke most expected, and even a slim loss will send the party ahead, energized, and with a new set of leaders. The cause, it seems, was not dead; it was dozing, or maybe hung-over. And now it's awake.

2. Angry White Women. Palin's pick was a hand grenade tossed into the old-fashioned feminist movement's aged and tottering hulk. "Can someone please tell me what the hell happened?" pled Michelle Cottle of the New Republic, as Sarah made landfall. Well, here is one answer, as George Jonas put it in Canada's National Post: "The office for which Hillary Clinton strove with merciless determination for a lifetime, only to see it snatched away from her in the 11th hour, could fall into the lap of Sarah Palin, a populist outsider, who hadn't prepared, or even looked, for the job." The horror. "A slap in the face to all women," Cottle called it, especially to "any woman who seriously supported Hillary in this race." Much more was coming, in much the same tone. "I find it insulting to women, to the Republican Party, and to the country," said Sally Quinn in a Newsweek/Washington Post blog. In the Baltimore Sun, Susan Reimer found Palin's selection "insulting on so many levels" that she barely could name them. Ruth Marcus, reading from the same cue cards, sputtered in the Washington Post: "I found Palin's selection .  .  . insulting." Google the phrase "Palin's pick is insulting to women," and you come up with 943,000 entries. Is this a plot or a stunning coincidence? Or possibly both?

At the same time the Quinns and Marcuses were declaring themselves affronted beyond all endurance, and declaring that women were far too independent, too diverse, and too clever to move as a herd in any direction; they were also asserting, on behalf of all women, that all women would surely reject this cynical, ham-fisted ploy. How stunned they must have been several days later when polls showed a move to McCain by white women and by independents. How could this have happened? Well, they might have found a few clues in the polls, which would have told them the abortion rights extremism they back is a minority viewpoint, polling only a few points higher than the pro-life extremism they dismiss as a fanatical fringe aberration. They would have shown that women are not more pro-choice than men are, in fact they are less so, and that in the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush carried white women by an 11-point margin. These were hints that not all of the sisters were lined up behind them, but what are facts when one is in the grip of delusion and arrogance? As Jonas noted, "There are two kinds of feminists: those who want to see the presidency available to women, and those who want the presidency available to card-carrying, licensed, and agenda-certified female feminists. .  .  . McCain's choice made the second kind livid .  .  . so close to power, with a woman so far removed from every reason for which to exercise it." So they lied all along when they said they wanted to help and empower all women. Who knew?

So the old-fashioned feminists have fallen back on the old theme of false consciousness; that women who don't agree with them aren't really women at all. This has been used before--even against Hillary, as when abortion doyenne Kate Michelman endorsed of all people John Edwards as being the best woman, or the best man for women, in the Democratic primary race. We know how that worked out. (On the other hand, he surely was the prettiest, and, as he seems to be supporting Rielle Hunter in style, Michelman may have been right.) Hillary's backers, though, appear to be split, with some in really high dudgeon at Palin, while others show muted pleasure in Obama's discomfort. One Hillary fundraiser even started a website to track sexist slurs. All in all, gender politics is a delicate subject. As one blogger on the right observed, "the thought of watching progressives tie themselves in knots over the next two months trying to square the inevitable attacks on the 'bimbo' beauty queen with poor, poor Hillary's sexist treatment by the media is worth it even if we lose."

3. Hillary's Angle. As fate had it, the phone finally rang at three in the morning chez Hillary Clinton, and this time, it was a true crisis: It was Barack Obama, begging her to save his rear end. Having beaten her in a long, angry battle, in which she and her friends thought his behavior and that of his friends had been sexist, after having broadcast the fact that she wasn't even on his medium list for vice president, he is now asking her without the title to take on the role of de facto vice president, i.e, head attack dog in dispatching the woman who now has stolen her chance to make history. As Amy Holmes put it on CNN's website, "In a strange twist of logic, the Obama campaign is touting the woman they passed over as the woman they need to beat the woman the other guy picked." That sound you hear--along with a small snort from Hillary--is the weight of power in the Democratic scale sliding back to the side of the Clintons. After he made a point of stressing how little she matters, he now seems to need her more than ever. And she, of course, does not need him.

Rather the opposite. If Obama wins, she gets to see her party in power, if that is her object. The problem is that the party is no longer hers. Or hers and her husband's. If Obama wins, the Clintons become history. They also slip down considerably on the great grid of power: She is eclipsed by a president who defeated her, a first lady who hates her, a loquacious vice president with a large, lively family, and a legion of people who early on threw in their lots with Obama, and have prior claims upon him and his loyalty. She becomes in effect a footnote to history, remembered perhaps for her personal dramas, her historic run in the primaries no longer remarkable, but overshadowed by Sarah Palin's run for vice president. Win or lose, Palin becomes the country's most visible she-politician, culture phenomenon, as well as the best bet to succeed John McCain at the head of her party. Hillary is yesterday's news, and has the rest of her life to brood on the mistakes that caused her to lose--very narrowly--the great prize she wanted and pursued, some will tell you, for the past 30 years.

This changes, however, if McCain wins. At once, she becomes the most important Democrat, the shipwreck survivor, the frontrunner for her party's 2012 nomination; the road not taken; the one that, if followed, would have led to the outcome for which her party has struggled so long. For four long years, she will be saying "I told you so"--to the super-delegates who didn't flock to her even when she won all those big primaries; to Obama, now back in the Senate, who didn't name her when he had his big chance. A deflated Messiah, a wünderkind who couldn't quite hack it, Obama would join Al Gore and John Kerry in the weary line of pitiful losers who tried and failed to match Bill Clinton's success. Bill Clinton himself becomes the Big Dog again, the one shining light in the overall darkness, the only Democrat to be elected twice since Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most successful Democrat since the mid-1960s, when Lyndon Johnson's luck, along with his party's good fortune, ran out. (Granted, this is a fairly low bar to get over. But still.) If you were Hillary Clinton, which prospect would you find more appealing? Let's guess.

For the time being, Hillary Clinton appears less than eager to help Barack Obama out of the hole that he has dug. "Clinton advisers," the New York Times reported on September 5, "say that Mrs. Clinton wants to do everything she can to elect Mr. Obama, so that she cannot be blamed if he loses--yet she also does not want to be too closely associated with him if he does." Hillary, who sees herself as presidential, does not want to lower herself by getting into a brawl with the other side's second tier candidate (that's the job of the veep pick, which she was not offered), but hasn't seemed to be going much after McCain either, stressing policy differences, and refraining from personal onslaughts. She seems to be attacking generic Republicans, on behalf of generic Democrats, who aren't often identified. As the Associated Press put it, "The most she'd say about Mrs. Palin is that she and presidential candidate John McCain 'are not the change that we need.' " Bill Clinton himself has had kind words for Palin. As the Boston Herald's Jules Crittenden wrote on his blog, "Obama may want to do the math on that 'enemy of my enemy is my friend' thing, and make sure he's figured it right."

Ever since Sarah Palin entered the campaign, both she and Hillary Clinton have observed a well-behaved truce. In her first speech, Palin praised Clinton (and 1984 Democratic VP nominee Geraldine Ferraro, both of whom crossed swords in the spring with Obama), and Clinton responded with a gracious and welcoming note of her own. Since then, neither of these two extremely acute politicians has uttered a cross personal word. They say they respect each other, and they may in fact do so: Many conservatives, to their own stupefaction, ended up admiring Hillary's grit under pressure. But Palin also hopes to peel off some of Hillary's voters, and Hillary has no intention of damaging her own future chances in a cat fight with another popular woman in the interests of her old foe. Clinton and Palin have key things in common: Each knows the other is an icon to millions of women; each sees a political future that goes beyond this election, and each senses potential in at least some of the other one's followers. Hillary's feminists and Palin's pro-life evangelicals are safely locked into their parties, but there is a much wider swath down the middle that appears to be open to both.

The truth is that Hillary's feminists were never the key to her primary victories. Her triumphs in the big states that were so impressive--Ohio and Texas, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia--were fueled by (Andrew) Jacksonian voters, in less elite venues, who found her the more conservative of the two Democrats; the least urban, the least elitist, the most likely to be strong and assertive in foreign affairs. These are not people for whom Roe v. Wade (either way) is a big voting issue. They are people for whom toughness is. They perceive, correctly, that each is a woman you would want to have on your wagon train if you were crossing the continent, and to them, each has the same gutsy, tough-woman vibe. It is not irrelevant that the places where the McCain people expect Palin to help most are the states in which Clinton managed to mop the floor with Obama, the states Obama offended with his "God and guns" ridicule. Clinton and Palin cannot afford to offend all of each other's constituents, and perhaps they don't want to.

And so, Hillary is missing in action from the Palin--hating brigade. She and McCain are said to be friends, and to work well together. In the primaries, she often compared Obama unfavorably to her friend in the Senate. Her comment that she and McCain had credentials in the national security area while Obama had a speech made four years ago has already appeared in McCain's commercials, and it is hard to believe when she said it that she could not foresee this happening. It is also hard to believe that after she and Bill vote for McCain in the privacy of the voting booth up in Chappaqua, they will not be among the first to make phone calls to Sarah Palin, and then to John McCain.

4. Bombs Away. McCain picked Palin for a number of reasons--youth, pizzazz, energy, appeal to the base and to middle-class women, to the West and to blue-collar voters--but it may turn out that the main contribution she makes to his effort is in goading the Democrats into spasms of self-defeating and entirely lunatic rage. Somehow, every element of her life--the dual offense of being a beauty-queen and hunter; the Down syndrome baby who wasn't aborted; the teenage daughter about to get married, whose baby also wasn't aborted; the non-metrosexual husband working the nightshift; the very fact of five children--touched a nerve on the liberal template, and sent the whole beast into convulsions, opening an intriguing and somewhat frightening window onto the turbulent id of the left.

On September 2, the New York Times ran six stories that touched on the teenage daughter's pregnancy, three of them above the fold on page one, each of them making Palin's family life look like Tobacco Road meets Jerry Springer. Carol Fowler, chairman of the Democratic party in South Carolina, said that Palin's main qualification "seems to be that she hasn't had an abortion," which, in some circles is nothing to brag about. (Fowler's husband Don, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, had just faded from the headlines after suggesting that the disruption of the Republican convention by Hurricane Gustav reflected the judgment of God.)

The editor in chief of the New Republic said Palin was "pretty like a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy's," and called her and her ilk "swilly people." Leftist "comediennes" made up rape scenarios. A hacker broke into Palin's private email account, spreading family photos and emails far and wide. Gawker, a website beloved of the New York-based media, gleefully dialed up one daughter's voice mail, published the photos, and a long list of email addresses of Palin's friends and family. Rumors surfaced that four-month old Trig was really the son of her now-pregnant daughter. Vanity Fair and New York magazine offered "The Authentic Trig Palin Conspiracy Time Line," with alternative theories of the infant's conception and parentage. Talk of bodily fluids sloshed through the blogosphere, as "Who had her baby, and when did she have it?" became the rallying cry of the left. A blogger for the Atlantic demanded medical records: "The circumstantial evidence for weirdness around this pregnancy is so great that legitimate questions arise."

But the main questions that arose concerned these over-the-top accusations, and the mental state of those making them. At the end of it all, Palin's backers had become a large guard of impassioned defenders; McCain got a boost among independents and in state-by-state polling; and a Ramussen poll showed that 68 percent of the people considered the press biased and partisan, and 51 percent thought it was out to skewer Republicans. Democrats, who have fretted for years about winning more votes in Middle America, are seeing their plans for "expanding the map" being flushed down the toilet. Wooing the red states will have to wait for the next cycle.

There were signs too that Palin was confounding Obama almost as much as she was enraging the left and the press, assuming there still is a difference between them. Planning to run as the agent of change against boring old white guys, he was knocked off his balance by the sudden emergence of a rival barrier-breaker, and someone as young and as jazzy as he. As Michael Barone wrote, the fighter pilot played an old pilot's trick on the rookie, getting "above and behind the adversary so you can shoot him out of the sky." In political terms, McCain set it up so "that the opponent's responses again and again reinforce the points you are trying to make, and undermine his own." Just so. Obama can't knock her as a flash in the pan, because that's what he is; he can't say she just gives good speeches, because that's what he does; he can't say she doesn't have enough deep experience, as his is scarcely deeper. In August, he didn't seem to know that Russia has a seat on the Security Council, and has the power to veto its measures. If Palin becomes president before 2012, it would be after a period of intense preparation. If Obama does, he would be unprepared on Day One.

It's a long way to November, but all of this Sarah Palin has managed in just three weeks. The past may be prologue. If so, one may wonder, to what?

Noemie Emery, a WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor, is author most recently of Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.