The Unsinkable Sarah Palin
The Alaskan’s book tour is just the start. John Batchelor on how Palin matches up with Obama—and why she’s the one to beat for 2012.
Sarah Palin has ignited her Twitter account: “Crossing border to Hoosier territory… Excited to meet Indiana folks who want to read about solutions to US challenges.” And with that, she launched what appears to be a thousand-day campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in the summer of 2012. Her glamorously homespun book, the hip baby-blue bus branded with her online addresses, the zealous frosh staff, the scrupulous TV choice of Oprah and Barbara Walters, and especially the selection of big Blue states to begin the ground tour—MI, OH, IN, FL, NC, VA, PA—describe not just a scenario for the GOP nomination, but also a carefully constructed map of electoral votes for the presidency against Barack Obama.
“The polls even in the Republican Party do not correctly speak to the power that Palin brings to the campaign trail, a mix of feverish Reagan myth and pop Fox iconoclasm.”
Palin’s Going Rogue book tour launch is a one-upsmanship imitation of The Audacity of Hope book tour that launched Mr. Obama in the fall of 2006. At the time, Mr. Obama was a very junior senator from Illinois on few lists for the presidency; even his publisher admitted expectations for the book were modest given the immediate non-fiction competition from John Grisham, Bill O’Reilly and Bob Woodward. Nonetheless, beginning nearly three years ago, on October 19, 2006, Obama’s tour used flattering TV appearances on the Today Show and Oprah, combined with worshipful reviews—“that rare politician who can write”—and choice independent bookstore appearances in McCain territory such as Tempe, Arizona, to rocket to Number 1 on the New York Times list. By Christmastime, the senator was deep in conference with David Axelrod, planning how to jump in front of the all-world favorite Mrs. Clinton by opening an exploratory committee in January 2007—a move that sold even more books.
• Duff McDonald: Palin’s Gold Mine• Tina Brown: Sarah Drops the Act• Michelle Goldberg: Palins’ Ego Trip• More Daily Beast contributors on Palin’s book tourPalin’s book tour and book sales already dwarfs Obama’s. Yet she presents herself in much the same dewy, charming, handsome way the president did when he first appeared a national figure. Both are youthful, well-married, family-centered outsiders from small iconoclastic Pacific states who entered politics at the ground floor and stayed there, unnoticed and unneeded, until lightning struck on stage at nomination conventions of famous Vietnam veteran losers John Kerry and John McCain. Palin and Obama now keep a wary eye on each other in the manner of Ali and Frazier looking for a rematch, or like the leads in the opening act tiff of a screwball romantic comedy. The president gave Palin a gigantic gift when he paused in China to say he wouldn’t read her book. And Palin lavished on the president a golden-tongued Palin-ism—“bass-ackwards”—to dismiss the White House’s economics. It’s clear who plays Desi, the exasperated straight man, and who plays carrot-topped Lucy.
Before Mrs. Palin can face off against her fellow bestselling author, she must confront and outmaneuver the opposition in her own party. Moderates such as New Mexico gubernatorial candidates Doug Turner and Susanna Martinez are already hiding in Area 51 from Mrs. Palin’s spectacular Roswell book event on December 1. (Palin shares with the much admired Barry Goldwater a winning credulity about government-suppressed UFOs.)The only rival for the nomination worth measuring at this time is the former Massachusetts governor and self-regarding Mormon, Mitt Romney, whose suave act fell short in 2008 to Mike Huckabee’s foodie hambone and McCain’s same old song. How does Mrs. Palin match up againt Mitt Romney? Like Ali to Liston, like George Washington to the Hessians, like Alexander to the Persians: in short, very well. Romney is weighted down not only by the right-wing distrust of his Massachusetts health care legacy, but also by the fact that his Bain Capital riches make him, after the bailout of 2008, more of a banker bloated by bonuses rather than a pitchfork-toting commoner.
Palin’s autobiography promotes her as the voice of something vibrant but amorphous. Her PAC calls it “Commonsense Conservatives,” or “Patriots.” But it’s recognizably the familiar GOP posse of right-wing social conservatives, led by the evangelicals, that is now reinvigorated by the Tea Party phenomenon. The polls even in the Republican Party do not correctly speak to the power that Palin brings to the campaign trail—a mix of feverish Reagan myth and pop Fox iconoclasm. She is Annie Oakley; she is Joan of Arc; she is that rare thing in politics, a one-name phenomenon, “Sarah,” like “Ike,” like “the Colonel.” Up against her, Romney has only his money, his sobriety and his Ozzie and Harriet family. He’s no match for Sarah Palin’s secret weapons of Todd “First Dude” Palin, and their creative kids: Bristol (a one-woman melodrama), relentless Piper, and the center of gravity, Trig. At a glimpse of the bus full of this American family reality show, Iowa will swoon one cold night in January; the open primary of New Hampshire will look like an avalanche of hossanahs.
The political challenge for Palin these next thousand days is to endure the zombies of her own party, such as Gingrich, Limbaugh, and the creepy Dobson and his cronies, who will barter and beg for a ride on her bus. Palin is much more for them than they are for her, and it will be a test of her celebrity leadership to see if she discards these creatures before their body parts fall off in public. Palin, who knows how to say “…start cutting taxes,” needs nothing at all from the Republican Congress and is shrewd enough to treat them as an infestation of beetles. Sarah PAC will make a display of campaigning for Tea Party tyros who endorse her “Conservatism for Dummies” and stay back from the camera shot during the 2010 elections, but none is critical. And if all her picks lose dopily like Doug Hoffman did in the recent New York 23rd District special election, it will only make her burn brighter as the true Joan to the true believers.
The most operatic scenario for Palin in 2010 is for the House GOP to fall short by a dozen votes and the GOP Senate to gain nominally—giving the party just enough in both chambers to guarantee a Democratic majority in lockdown, a White House in the deep freeze and the ex-governor of Alaska on the stump as a national redeemer against the monolithic disdain of the wise and powerful Obama behind Axelrod’s curtain. Already at Fort Hood there is an edgy anxiety at her potency, as the Army insists that her hot event on December 4th be limited to book signings, no pictures, no remarks. As if Palin unrecorded and unheard is somehow controllable.
What can stop Sarah Palin from the Republican nomination? There is fate. The history of the GOP is marked by beautiful sure things that weren’t. Like Nelson Rockefeller, who was ambushed by Barry Goldwater in 1964. Like Robert Taft, who was outfoxed by Eisenhower in 1952. Like Tom Dewey and Robert Taft, who were drowned out by the hysteria for Wendell Willkie in 1940. If there is a Republican politician who can outrun Palin’s poll position right now, he or she has not made a move yet.
No blunt challenge to Palin based upon facts or events will ever work; she is a black belt at the art of victimology, creating and defeating villains called the “lamestream media” with a wave of her hand. Even the spellbinders of Hollywood have so far failed in their mockery. The GOP slayer Jon Stewart has tried, saying of Palin: “when you peel back the pretty, shooty layers of the onion, there’s no onion” and “it’s a conservative boilerplate mad-lib.” But the more he tries, the more her Tea Party base of the unsmart, unwashed, unemployed, and unforgettable grows and plans, the Joads in the glow of the TV, not laughing at the witty satirist but rather adoring the object of his scorn.
John Batchelor is radio host of the John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles.