Monday, 23 November 2009

Palin's prospects

After a lengthy hiatus - ever since she left the governor's mansion in July - Sarah Palin is now back in the land of Tweets, with a new page decorated with a map of the US coloured Republican red (not so odd: back in the 18th century, red was the Tory colour in Britain, too), a cartoon moose captioned "Go Rogue with Sarah" and - obviously - a copy of her book. The Tweets themselves are as you might expect, a combination of the strident and the syruppy. There are gushing messages of thanks to her loyal supporters ("Good folks have been lined up outside... UR inspiring!"). She's "excited to meet Indiana folks who want to read about solutions to US challenges". She's evidently trying to patch things up with John McCain: "spoke w/John yestrdy;he truly is a hero & thx for shout out on the book!" Her strange obsession with blocking healthcare reform continues ("horrible govt healthcare takeover"). She spells "tonight", "tonite" (it's only one extra letter). She has had a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to meet Billy Graham: "The patriarch's message of faith is needed in US today more thn ever".

Palin, of course, long ago descended into self-parody. She was once a genuine political phenomenon who, despite shortcomings (including inexperience and a lack of philosophical sophistication) did manage to get things done. Her pitch of being an ordinary "hockey mom" sorting out complacent and out-of-touch politicians had an element of truth. Her achievement in becoming governor of Alaska was remarkable in itself; more remarkable was that, for two years, she appeared to be doing a good job. That should have been enough. But for the intervention of last year's presidential election, she would still be in the governor's mansion, gearing herself for re-election, still a local heroine. Now she trudges round the bleaker parts of America signing books.

A typical Palin book-signing. More pictures on Mudflats.

Gary Younge claims that "She had a thin record when she was picked to run as vice-president" and that her "rise to prominence, from little-known governor to one of the most popular and arguably most charismatic Republicans in the country in just a year, has been startling." But in fact it is her fall, rather than her rise, that needs to be accounted for. She had a perfectly good record as governor, and if she had stuck to it could have been - perhaps in a few years' time - an effective candidate. True, she was little-known outside Alaska - but then in 1992 Bill Clinton was little-known outside Arkansas, and a couple of years ago not many people had heard of Barack Obama. Palin was charismatic in her Convention speech and many believed that a new political star had arrived. Her resignation speech a few months later was so embarrassing it almost certainly destroyed the last serious chance of resurrecting her political career.

What has happened to her is a tragedy on several levels. For herself first of all: she has exchanged power and regard for money and celebrity, and in the process rendered herself more-or-less irrelevant. The greater her fame, the more adoring the fans, the less credibility she possesses. She has become the leading character in an increasingly bizarre soap-opera, a professional entertainer rather than a politician. From a potential Thatcher she has sunk to the condition of Ann Widdecombe or even Christine Hamilton. She has also become much more ideological, the spokeswoman for a Republican fundamentalism that she did not originally espouse. Or at least didn't make much fuss about. The almost Survivalist aversion to government, the uber-religiosity (which sits so oddly with her chaotic domestic life), the extreme narrowness of outlook are part of the Palin persona that developed after she was introduced to national politics. She appears to have adopted as her personality, wholesale, the caricature that her opponents created for her. The original Palin, hard-working, level-headed and bi-partisan, has vanished.

It's not obvious why this has happened. Sexism probably has something to do with it. And Naomi Wolf might be on to something in Saturday's Times when she suggests that when Palin became candidate for VP she was taken over by the same people who gave us George W Bush.

When the McCain campaign professionals finally step forward in the second half of the book, they treat her like a Stepford vice-presidential candidate. They buy her beautiful clothes and have her turn in front of the mirrors while they style her: but they hand her a copy of a statement they’ve crafted about her daughter’s pregnancy — putting feelings in words she doesn’t share — and when she tries to edit them, they’ve already released their version to the national media. They keep her from calling her press contacts. They stop her from staying near supporters on the rope lines; they hustle her away from the special-needs children in wheelchairs into the private plane. They make her wear $70 pantyhose. They try to tell her what she can and cannot eat. This is not a vice-presidential campaign — and I say that as someone who has worked for the Vice-President in such a campaign in 2000. It is the high-level grooming of a political geisha.


Her job, in that campaign, was to speak to, and for, the Republican base (like John Prescott, almost) and such was her inexperience that she was happy to go along with being used as a puppet - for a while, at least. She became, for a time, extremely popular, but the price to be paid was the destruction, not just of her political credibility, but of her as a politician. As governor of Alaska, she actually did things and was treated as a serious decision-maker. As candidate, she said what she was told to say, wore what she was told to wear - and was rewarded with derision. She was a good instinctive politician (how else can we explain her ascent from nowhere to state governorship?) but a bad actress, and it was acting that was required of her.

In their desire to hold onto the "base", Republican strategists created a pseudo-candidate indistinguishable from one that might have been invented by the elitist liberals she devotes so much of her time these days to ridiculing. She found herself typecast, as her juvenile avatar Carrie Prejean has more recently been, as Bible Barbie. Yet her personal story and homespun style was genuinely appealing. Gary Younge claims that "the very things that liberal commentators ridicule her for – being inarticulate, unworldly, simplistic and hokey – are the very things that make her attractive to her base." That's a tendentious way of putting it. Her supporters, rather, are prepared to overlook these glaring faults, even to interpret her shortcomings as proof of a conspiracy against her, because they share her strong convictions - God and country - and see in her struggle with life and the establishment their own daily battles writ large. Indeed, every time she is taunted she becomes more popular because it reaffirms the (not entirely mistaken) view that the deeply held values of a sizable section of the population are being disparaged.

To that extent she does indeed speak to "the thwarted aspirations and brooding resentment" (Younge again) of America's white working class - which is at least as marginalised politically as ours is. But this does not necessarily mean that large numbers of people actually want to vote for her. In fact, it may be a mistake to look upon the Sarah Palin phenomenon as political at all (although it is to a large extent anti-politics). Her attraction for her fanbase, now queuing for her book-signings, is one of solidarity and sympathy (and, for the men, a strong admixture of sex). In this she resembles a tough-but-vulnerable Country and Western singer - Dolly Parton, say - more than she does any politician.

Wolf thinks that Palin "is going to be around, and she is going to be a force". I disagree: around, yes, but scarcely a force. Not a political force, anyway. There is a life - and a career - outside politics for failed polticians willing to perform as parodies of themselves: Tony Benn, Ann Widdecombe, Al Gore (perhaps even Bill Clinton falls into this category). But they were all something to begin with. What Palin was and what she has become are so different that her current incarnation strikes a duff note. And you can tell from her faltering public performances - so unlike the confidence she exuded when she was first talent-spotted by the McCain team - that she doesn't really believe it herself. In any case, she lacks the articulacy and clarity to be the demogogue that Naomi Wolf fears. She'll continue to make money - she has enough die-hard followers to keep her in lipstick - and the soap opera will continue to prove irresistible. But it's just entertainment.