Saturday, March 10, 2012

Canada: The Palin Legacy: Empowering the far right in American politics

National Post

HBO serves up a reminder of Sarah Palin’s ongoing legacy
Scott Stinson

In the spring of 2008, John McCain sat down at his Arizona ranch with Mark Salter, one of the senior advisors on his presidential campaign. The Republican nominee wanted to know what his aide thought of Sarah Palin.

“Our slogan is ‘Country First,’” said Mr. Salter, as depicted in the new HBO film Game Change. “[Joe] Lieberman and [Tim] Pawlenty are country-first choices. Palin will be viewed as political opportunism. You may not only lose the election, John, you may just lose your reputation right along with it.”

The Senator said he wasn’t worried about his reputation. He wanted to win the presidency. And his team thought Ms. Palin, then still an unknown governor of a state 6,000 kilometres from Washington, had the right mix of appeal to give the Republican ticket a shot at countering Barack Obama’s rock-star popularity.

“This is a woman with a gun, John,” one of his aides said. “I mean, c’mon, the base will be doing backflips.”

Mr. McCain picked Ms. Palin, of course. Men like Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Joe Lieberman — all of whom were vetted as possible VP choices — were passed over in favour of the neophyte one-time mayor of Wasilla.

It didn’t work out so well.


Sarah Palin’s introduction as the vice-presidential nominee alongside John McCain was a huge success. She delivered a well-received speech at the 2008 Republication convention and even spoke off-the-cuff when her TelePrompter failed.

Opinion of her changed, though, as she began making media appearances. And, according to a new study, the characterization of her on Saturday Night Live was a particularly negative influence.

“Young Adults, Political Humor, and Perceptions of Sarah Palin in the 2008 Presidential Election Campaign,” a forthcoming paper in Public Opinion Quarterly, says there is “evidence that exposure to Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin’s performance in the 2008 vice-presidential debate on Saturday Night Live is associated with changes in attitudes toward her selection as VP candidate and presidential vote intentions.”

The researchers said the effect was limited to those who identified themselves as Republicans and Independents. Young adults who considered themselves Democrats were already inclined to dislike Ms. Palin, thus their attitude toward her remain unchanged after viewing the clip.

“When all other variables in the model are held at their mean, those who watched the SNL clip had a 45.4% probability of saying that Palin’s nomination made them less likely to vote for McCain,” wrote the authors, according to a Washington Post blog post. “This same probability drops to 34% among those who saw coverage of the debate through other media.”

Though the authors refer only to the SNL sketch on the vice-presidential debate, the Fey impression of Ms. Palin was a reliable bit for the comedy show throughout the election season. In one segment involving Ms. Fey and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate says she believes in man-made global warming. Ms. Fey, as Ms. Palin, responds that she thinks it’s “just God giving us all a warm hug.”

Game Change, adapted from the book by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, focuses on the story of the McCain team as it picked Ms. Palin as a running mate and then discovered that on issues of substance she was far from ready for the national stage. But what makes it particularly relevant to the Republican Party of today is how the McCain strategists also came to realize that in selecting Ms. Palin they had struck a deep reserve of American populism — and that once those emotions had been drilled, the Republican Party was unable to turn off the geyser.

The movie is often a straight-ahead account of a chapter of American political history that is fairly well picked over, but it also includes some juicy insider bits, such as when Steve Schmidt, one of McCain’s senior strategists, confesses to a colleague, “I haven’t even told him that she doesn’t know anything.”

The made-for-television film, which stars Ed Harris as Mr. McCain and Julianne Moore as Ms. Palin, is also not at all sympathetic to the latter. Ms. Palin is presented first as naive, later as remarkably reluctant to perform important tasks such as interview preparation, and eventually as quite deluded about her abilities as a politician. She also, oddly, wears hockey jerseys a lot.

But while the filmmakers present Ms. Palin as a rube, there’s also an acknowledgement that her arrival on the scene tapped into something. Four years after John McCain picked Sarah Palin, that element of the Republican Party that she was brought in specifically to woo — the more die-hard right-wingers that are loosely described as “the base” — has made the 2012 presidential nomination processes one of the strangest in modern history.

Unhappy with the conservative bona fides of Mitt Romney, the base has thrown its weight behind a succession of conservative standard-bearers who have flamed out under the attention of the public spotlight. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and — amazingly — Mr. Santorum again, have all been held up as the “true” Republican candidate who would better represent the party than a moderate like Mr. Romney. Even as the party appears likely to settle now on Mr. Romney as its pick, rather than someone like Mr. Santorum who seems generally unelectable, there are questions over whether the Republican Party has been split beyond repair.

According to Game Change, Mr. McCain saw it coming. Near the end of the 2008 campaign, with Mr. McCain still trailing badly in the polls, his strategists urged him to pick up his negative attacks on Mr. Obama by bringing up controversial statements made by his reverend and highlighting his apparent connection to a controversial activist.

“There is a dark side to American populism,” Mr. McCain said in response. “Some people win elections by tapping into it. I’m not one of those people.”

He folded eventually, leaving it to Ms. Palin to launch broadsides about the Democratic candidate’s association with “terrorists.”

But did Ms. Palin’s 2008 entry spark a rift within the GOP from which it cannot recover? If Mr. McCain’s decision to pick her didn’t cost him his reputation, did it cost his party the country?

There’s not a simple answer to those questions. The Tea Party movement, which bought into Ms. Palin’s disdain for Washington insiders and her support for “the real America,” was at least partly responsible for helping the Republicans take control of Congress in the mid-term elections. And, though its supporters appear reluctant to coalesce behind Mr. Romney, it remains possible that they will do so should he win the nomination. If they do, no doubt that will bring voters who weren’t engaged in earlier elections.

The awkwardness of the 2012 primary season, though, with the party establishment backing Mr. Romney and one-time Palinites supporting just about anyone else, suggests that Republicans still haven’t figured out just what to do about the populist streak that Mr. McCain rather unwittingly unleashed.

One can barely turn on CNN without finding a Republican strategist bemoaning the electoral doom that would befall the party should it choose a polarizing nominee such as Mr. Santorum. And yet, the party needs the base if it is going to win an election. It just doesn’t want to draw too much attention to those voters and the policies that are important to them.

(It’s worth noting that in Canada, Stephen Harper solved this problem by marginalizing those with strict conservative views and gambling, correctly, that they would back him because they had nowhere else to go. The lesson from America is that this segment is too large to be tucked away in a corner.)

Game Change suggests that Mr. McCain, for one, was never comfortable with the turn taken by his campaign. He appears stricken when people at his rallies call his rival a Muslim, or not an American. The hard right had been emboldened. They remain so today.

By election night, when all that’s left is a concession speech, Mr. McCain and his advisors gather for one last dispute with his vice-presidential nominee, this time over whether she will be allowed to speak, too. (Answer: no.)

But before he goes out on stage to congratulate the president-elect, Mr. McCain takes Ms. Palin aside for a quiet word.

“You’re one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah,” he says. “Don’t get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. You’ll destroy the party if you do.”

Prescient, that.

On Super Tuesday, CNN caught Ms. Palin as she voted in the Alaska primary. Asked about a run for the presidency in 2016, she said she’s not ruling anything out. What if, this time around, someone threw her name in the ring at an open Republican convention? “I wouldn’t close any doors,” she replied.

Republican races: she haunts them still.

No comments:

Post a Comment