Sarah Palin may turn out to be Obama's greatest political asset. Polls show that Obama is the most polarizing Democrat since Truman. Palin, in turn, is the most polarizing Republican since Lincoln. That makes her the perfect distraction, foil, and ultimately, perfect perverse Obama ally. Palin's inanities, idiocies, and cartoonish utterances are now legendary. She is the butt of SNL laugh lines, giddily mocked and ridiculed by Democrats and the pundits, and groaned at by the GOP regulars. Polls show that her approval ratings are dreadful, and the overwhelming majority of poll respondents say that she's not fit to be president. But this only makes her even more bizarrely appealing.
She sells papers like crazy, and a Palin piece on web sites invokes pages of comments. She jumped Oprah's rating to the highest in two years when she appeared on her show to hawk her book. The crowds that wildly cheered her during the presidential campaign and just as enthusiastically cheer her on her self-promotion jaunts around the country haven't slacked up one bit. The networks stumbled over each other to cover her tea party convention speech. CNN, especially, sniffed a ratings bonanza in Palin and dispatched an 11 person crew to the convention, and then carried her mostly canned, standard, bromide-laced speech live.
The GOP regulars sneer and pretend to shun her. Democrats mock and poke fun at her. But in a year when the party pols are about as popular as the mumps, and Obama's approval numbers have plummeted faster than the Hindenburg, Palin is the perfect everyperson's anti-candidate. McCain certainly knew that. He gambled that her homespun, matronly stump style, and Bible spouting, gun toting appeal would be tonic for his sagging campaign. Since winning elections is still as much about which candidate can win the hearts not the heads of the voters, Palin was the one to tug at the religious conservative's heart strings.
If McCain had played it close to the vest and picked, say, Mitt Romney as his VP mate, it would have left him wide open to the rap that the best the GOP could do was put up two aging, multimillionaire, white, party warhorses. With the financial meltdown and public rage over Wall Street conniving and manipulation, along with the Bush administration's bailout plan that thumbed a nose at desperate homeowners, cash-strapped small businesses, and down on their luck workers, Obama almost certainly would have routed that pair on Election Day.
Palin was the only possible antidote to that. She sent the signal for McCain that his administration would not simply be a recycled four more years of Bush policies. Few bought that, but with the deck seemingly stacked hopelessly against him anyway, Palin did just enough to make the final popular vote respectable for him.
Palin on the loose in 2012 would potentially render the same aid to Obama. Progressives, liberal and moderate Democrats will dutifully vote for Obama, vote unenthusiastically for him, or pay some lip service to third party challenges, and then grumble as they pull the lever for him. Palin poses absolutely no threat to his solid or lukewarm Democratic base. The mere mention of her as a possible candidate will terrorize disgusted Democrats out of their Obama inertia. The real damage that she can do will be to confuse, rile up, and split Republicans. Her support in the party could translate out into millions of disgruntled, frustrated voters who would be sorely tempted to push, prod and hector the GOP to give Palin her due. Many would be just as sorely tempted to vote for Palin as a maverick candidate, or if her name is not on any ballot, stay at home. This would be tantamount to a vote for Obama.
Palin's strength is playing on and stoking popular rage and frustration with tin ear politicians who've turned voters into invisible men and women. But much, of course, can change in the next two years. A sharp upturn in the economy, the disappearance of the much loathed -- by Palin's cheerleaders -- Obama health care reform package, the fade in public fury over Wall Street's free booting wheeling and dealing, a wind down in the Iraq War, and the semblance of stability in Afghanistan, would make Palin an amusing, if not regrettable trivia question. For now, a mesmerized media, titillated public, and legions of Palin loathers, have made Palin the talk of the land. That talk is just fine for Obama.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is "How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge" (Middle Passage Press).
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