Sarah Palin's address at the Tea Party convention in Nashville vividly demonstrates why this woman is unlikely to ever become president of the United States: she's too pissed off.
Tea Party convention organizers found talismanic significance in the coincidence of Palin's Saturday night speech with what would have been Ronald Reagan's 99th birthday. But the secret of Reagan's success, both rhetorically and politically, was the aura of amiability that surrounded even his most radical ideas. Where Reagan floated above his critics, Palin remains tethered to the ground by the mega-ton chip on her shoulder. If the speech in Nashville is any indication, this tetchiness now threatens to engulf the more appealing aspects of her persona.
Anger is a tricky emotion for politicians to pull off, especially on a sustained basis. When deployed strategically, righteous indignation can be a useful tool -- think of Reagan's "I am paying for this microphone" outburst at the famous 1980 debate in New Hampshire. But when high dudgeon becomes the default mode, as it is with Palin, audiences have little reason to remain interested. Why watch the show when you already know the script?
Even in tough times, Americans remain an essentially optimistic people. Politicians who work the dark side of the electorate automatically distance themselves from all but the most dissatisfied voters. This is the risk that Sarah Palin now runs, that even as her supporters become more ardent, their numbers will dwindle.
One of the most astute political messages in recent memory came from a potential rival of Palin's, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. "I'm a conservative Republican," he liked to say during the 2008 campaign, "but I'm not mad at anybody." The brilliance of this rhetorical maneuver cannot be overestimated. Like Reagan, Huckabee saw electoral benefit in projecting an upbeat demeanor. You got the feeling that if you ever met Huckabee, you could disagree on every issue yet come away liking the guy.
This ability to rise above vitriol is a rare gift in politics, one that transcends ideology and party lines. Franklin Roosevelt had it, Bill Clinton had it, and of course Reagan had it in spades. By contrast, Palin evokes the specter of Richard Nixon. Both figures seem driven by an insatiable appetite for perceived slights. Nixon, at least, mixed self-pity with political substance; for Palin, getting her dander up constitutes pretty much the entire act.
Beneath the surface of Palin's wrath a troubling contradiction lurks: the more entrenched she becomes as a celebrity, the more her outrage appears manufactured. Even her fan club may find reason to wonder if Palin's anger is genuine or mere political posturing. After all, how angry can anyone be who has hit the great American jackpot of instant fame and fortune? What can Sarah Palin possibly have in common with Tea Party regulars whose very identity hinges on their sense of disenfranchisement, when obviously she suffers from no such deficit?
For Palin the politics of being pissed off may make sense in the short run, but it poses a long-term danger to her presidential aspirations. Vituperation may guarantee media attention, and it may satisfy a sliver of equally pissed-off citizens. But if history is any guide, anger does not pave the way to the White House. Americans, it seems, prefer their political leaders sunny side up.