Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Significance of Sarah Palin

Published in Commentary: Contentions on September 4, 2008



There is a lot to say about Sarah Palin's performance last night, but perhaps the place to begin is with this observation: Boy did Democrats choose the wrong hockey mom to pick a fight with.

1. It's always difficult to judge these things in real time, but my sense is that what happened last evening was a genuinely important political moment. It was important above all for Sarah Palin, who, under enormous pressure, delivered her speech flawlessly, with grace and style, in a way that was elegant, effective, and accessible. She is a supremely gifted political talent, both captivating and tough. And her conservatism seems organic rather than manufactured, ingrained rather than recently imbibed. After seeing her last night, you can understand why her approval rating in Alaska is at 80 percent. (What on earth is wrong with the other 20 percent?)

It's also worth pointing out that Governor Palin did what no one else, in 18 months, has been able to do: land clear and extraordinarily effective blows against America's best known community organizer, Barack Obama. Governor Palin did it with mocking good humor, charm, and devastating lines. Not bad for a former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska.

There are many more hurdles for Palin to clear before we can make a confident judgment about this governor whom most of us did not know just a week ago. She still faces a steep learning curve on a range of issues, and an extremely aggressive press corps. But with a single speech–think Reagan in ‘64, Cuomo in ‘84, and Obama in ‘04–Sarah Palin has emerged, at least for now, as one of the brightest stars within the political galaxy. She looks to be a natural, and she may now be the leader of a movement.

2. Last night was an important moment for John McCain, who after selecting Palin saw his judgment questioned and trashed not only by his critics but even by even by his former top aide. But McCain, who has acted on instinct throughout much of his political life, did so again with this pick. McCain seems to have seen in Palin what he sees in himself: a reformer, a person of admirable political courage and cross-over appeal.

3. Last night was also an important, and a very bad, moment for the mainstream media, many of whom were mocking in their coverage of Palin. Her selection, according to Eleanor Clift of Newsweek, evoked derisive belly laughs in news rooms all across America. Palin was Harriet Miers without the experience, E.J. Dionne sneeringly wrote in his column. She is a “bantamweight cheerleader from the West,” according to that mighty intellect from the East, Maureen Dowd. Sally Quinn– whose name is known to you, if it is known to you, only because of her marriage to Ben Bradlee–called the pick an “insult to women, to the Republican Party, and to the country.”

There are many honorable members of the press who didn't engage in the near obsession with Governor Palin's daughter's pregnancy (by my count the New York Times devoted four stories to this topic on Tuesday) or some of the really ugly stuff, journalists who viewed the Palin pick with skepticism but fairness. But there is no question that many members of the press were eager to pre-judge Palin as a failure and portray her as a rube, and who were clearly constructing a trap for her. She was going to be the next Dan Quayle.

Unfortunately for them, last night Palin didn't back down a millimeter and, in fact, she took the fight to the press with aplomb. In the course of 40 minutes last night, the media, already one of the least trusted institutions in American life, saw its credibility diminish even further. We may see a backlash of tremendous dimensions.

4. Last night was also an important moment for the Republican Party. For the last several years the GOP has been dispirited, lacking confidence and lacking direction. The Democratic Party was energized, self-confident, flush with cash and seemed to own the future. But with Palin's pick last week and especially with her speech last night, the GOP is suddenly revitalized. One cannot underestimate the joy and pride Republicans will have recaptured this week; as Mark Halperin of Time magazine said, an alchemy between McCain and his party is taking place at the RNC. Or, to put it another way, it is as if last evening served as a circuit breaker for the last three years, a very bad stretch that began with Hurricane Katrina and may have ended with Hurricane Gustav.

It's important to insert the caveats: last night consisted of only one speech, the national spotlight can be withering, and Governor Palin still faces lots of questions, as well as a vice presidential debate. And it's important to recall that most moments in politics that seem special and memorable at the time are ephemeral. All true. And yet one cannot help but think that what we saw last night was a woman who strode onto the national stage in a dazzling way, and who may dominate it for a long time to come.

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