By Eugene Robinson
The headlines scream as if Godzilla were rising from the icy depths of the Potomac: “Sarah Palin: Threat or Menace?”
OK, I haven’t actually seen that one, at least not verbatim. But the commentariat is in full run-for-the-hills mode over the prospect that Palin could still have a political future. A lot of Democrats—and quite a few Republicans, too—seem worried that she intends to stomp the capital to smithereens, perhaps along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Her appearance at the Tea Party Convention in Nashville was imbued with portent that might have been appropriate for, say, Napoleon’s escape from Elba.
As is too often the case, Washington seems to be out of step with objective reality.
While the political insiders who are supposed to have their finger on America’s pulse worry about Palin’s burgeoning “popularity,” the fact is that her approval ratings have been sinking. According to a new Washington Post poll, only 37 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Palin—a new low. Meanwhile, 55 percent have an unfavorable impression of the erstwhile Alaska governor, which is a new high figure.
More to the point, Palin’s refusal to rule out a run for the White House seems, at present, completely ludicrous. An astounding 71 percent of Americans do not believe that Palin is qualified to serve as president, the Post poll found. This number includes not only virtually all Democrats and two-thirds of independents but also a majority of Republicans—52 percent—who believe that Palin should not be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.
The evidence suggests that the longer Palin struts and frets upon the national stage, the less seriously she is taken as a political figure. Even among those who describe themselves as conservatives—a necessary constituency if a Palin candidacy is ever to gain traction—fewer than half think she is qualified to be president, according to the Post poll. That’s a sharp decline from the 66 percent of conservatives who believed her to be qualified last fall.
Indeed, why wouldn’t her numbers fall? The one concrete political step that Palin has taken since the 2008 election was to resign as governor with 17 months left in her term, explaining—and I’m paraphrasing here, but I think I’m being fair—that all those official duties were way too much of a hassle.
She also wrote an entertaining and lucrative book, established herself on the speaking circuit at a reported $100,000 per lecture, and signed on as a commentator for Fox News. Those are all great moves for a political celebrity. For a potential presidential candidate, apparently, not so much.
She’s a great performer, though. And I’m not mad at her for writing notes for the tea party speech on her palm; it was almost charming, in a regular-gal kind of way. Palin knows how to whip up a crowd, and her nickname from her days as a high school basketball star, Sarah Barracuda, aptly describes a finely tuned killer instinct. Her put-down of the Obama administration—“How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for you?”—might have been unfair, but it did have teeth.
Where does any of this really take her, though? It’s certainly true that Palin has a knack for expressing the restlessness and anger of many Americans who are buffeted by economic crisis, fed up with a dysfunctional political culture in Washington and tired of feeling as if their voices are being ignored. So far, however, all that Palin’s talent has accomplished is to make her the Tea Party Queen. That could be a valuable platform for a national campaign, but even a politician with Palin’s undeniable charisma is eventually going to have to, you know, say something. Beyond nostrums about “common-sense solutions,” I mean.
What does Palin actually propose? I realize she might consider this a trick question, like the time that mean Katie Couric asked about what she reads. But isn’t it awfully patronizing to act as if her followers are so dazzled by her very presence that they will never seek to pin her down on a single issue? The polls certainly suggest this is a serious miscalculation.
There’s a word for those who, like Palin, act as if the voters are mere sheep who don’t need to be troubled by discussion of what their government should actually do. The word—and Palin might want to cover her ears—is elitist.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
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