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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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.