Politics

07.31.12

Why Sarah Palin’s Reputation Has Plummeted as Bill Clinton’s Has Grown

Once the darling of conservatives, the former vice-presidential candidate is now seen as something of an embarrassment—even as the previously vilified 42nd president has grown in stature. The reassessments show the perils of hyper-partisanship, says John Avlon.

Time cools passions and adds perspective. This seems especially true for the tumultuous Republican love affair with Sarah Palin. It was intense, it was irrational—and it’s over.

Dick Cheney is just the latest conservative icon to join the chorus of voices who recognize that the selection of Sarah Palin for vice president was a major-league mistake. The man who first brought Palin to John McCain, Steve Schmidt, famously came to that conclusion before the 2008 campaign even ended. Now Team Romney doesn’t even want her to be seen at the same podium in Tampa. And in perhaps the unkindest cut, Mindy Meyer, the Legally Blonde-inspired 22-year-old conservative New York State Senate candidate known in the tabloids as “the Magenta Yenta,” dismissed Palin by saying, “She's just so oblivious to the issues.”

There’s a reason for this broad-based cooling of affections. In the past four years, something like an organic consensus has emerged. Doubts that began with talk of “death panels” only grew with mutterings about “blood libel.” Over time, the reflexive Republican impulse to defend her honor became replaced with exhaustion and embarrassment. 

Even some of the most devoted Palinites are left wondering what they were thinking.

Take David Kelly of Colorado Springs, the one-time treasurer of the Draft Sarah 2012 committee. In 2009, when I interviewed him, Kelly believed that Palin “represents the silent majority of this nation ... she invokes what conservative America’s all about: God and Country.” Now he’s come to a different conclusion.

“You may be shocked to hear that I am no longer a Palin supporter,” he told me over the phone.  “I think what attracted me to her in the first place was the fact that she’d say things that you’d hear at the Thanksgiving table when your relatives are there and go, ‘There’s my crazy aunt, but she nails it every time.’” 

But now? “I realize that she’s another Republican talking head,” says Kelly, who is today a proud Ron Paul supporter. “I don’t think she has the caliber to make a great leader for this nation in these times ... She’s off my radar. It’s a sad statement.”

Yes, it’s been a bad breakup. But signs of trouble were there for a long time. In December 2010, just one month after the Tea Party triumph, an ABC poll found that “59 percent of voters said they wouldn’t cast a ballot for Palin and only 8 percent of Americans said they’d ‘definitely’ vote for her.”

Almost a year later, in September 2011, a McClatchy-Marist poll found that “by 72 percent to 24 percent, Republicans and Republican-leaning independents do not want Palin to run for president in 2012. Even among Tea Party supporters—a group that likes Palin—68 percent do not want her to run.” 

The polarization has faded in favor of a general understanding that for all her talents, Palin was not ready for presidential prime time. 

Objectivity is elusive, but eventually something like balance creeps into our assessments.

This new consensus is a vindication for her critics, especially Republican skeptics like Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, who described Palin as an “attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League.” In the hothouse atmosphere of 2008, Parker’s statement earned her some 20,000 emails, many of this vintage: “You’re not one of us, you’re one of THEM, the liberal lovers, the flag-burners, country haters, the ones who want to kill god and put Stalin in his place and see this nation destroyed by a sea of brown people and gays.”

Now even such inspired bile seems like a museum piece. Absent the chance that she could be a heartbeat away from the presidency (or a candidate herself), Palin no longer stirs the kind of passion that sold magazines and divided families. The fascination has faded. Instead, there is an aura of embarrassment bordering on amnesia, even from some one-time supporters. This dynamic will ultimately affect Michele Bachmann fans as well.

While I was writing this column, an interesting bit of contrasting data hit the wires. Bill Clinton has a 66 percent approval rating, matching his all-time high. Coincident with this news is the announcement that Bubba will be the Wednesday night keynote speaker of the Democratic convention in North Carolina. 

It is surreal but true to say that Bill Clinton is now the Republicans’ favorite living Democratic president, a person who even Newt Gingrich now refers to with nostalgia and something like respect. 

No more is Clinton attacked as far-left ’60s radical—he is recognized as the essentially centrist Southern governor he always said he was. His wife—perhaps even more hated by the right in the 1990s—is widely regarded as a stabilizing force in the Obama administration as secretary of state. 

One interpretation of this reversal of fortune is that the Clintons look good because the Obamas are so bad. But reflect on the fact that so many of the attacks are the same—including a column originally published on WorldNetDaily calling Clinton a Marxist Manchurian candidate—and you quickly come to the more obvious conclusion that the problem lies in the reflexive hyper-partisanship that distorts the characters of political figures beyond realistic recognition. 

Over time, we start to see these figures more clearly. No one is as good as intense advocates believe or as bad as overheated opponents insist. But I think it is worthwhile to note that the more reasoned criticism of Sarah Palin now seems to be widely accepted. And on the flip side, American consensus about Bill Clinton—for all his well-documented flaws—has erred on the side of his moderate defenders. Objectivity is elusive, but eventually something like balance creeps into our assessments. The result is not always nonpartisan.

The takeaway for this current election is to not fall for the overheated attacks—or overzealous defenses—of either candidate, especially when they echo old fear-mongering scripts. Falling for the fever of hyper-partisanship tends to make fools of us all, in time.