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Stuart Whatley Headshot

Advice to Palin: Give the GOP Elephant His Job Back

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Newt Gingrich this week prophesied that Alaska Governor Sarah Palin could become "very formidable" in the coming years as long as she "seeks out a group of sophisticated policy advisers." I daresay the latter clause of this statement is more likely than the former. But maybe I'm not being fair. Governor Palin does indeed have the potential to be a "very formidable" and viable GOP presidential candidate in 2012. However, the journey before her will be nothing short of a modern-day Pinocchio story--an endeavor to transform from a cartoon character into a real person.

Tina Fey was successful in lampooning Palin on SNL by using almost exact copies of her disastrous interview transcripts, rather than writing much original material (though Fey is no doubt a gifted and prolific comedic writer). Fey's impression delivered, and is now famous, primarily because of this authenticity--it required little embellishment to achieve comedic absurdity because the raw material from which it derived was sufficient enough. For many, even the most oblique reference to the Alaska governor had, by the end of the campaign, become a punch-line in and of itself (such as we've recently seen with Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich).

Recall the presidential campaign last fall, when McCain camp aides speculated that Palin had "gone rogue" to lay the foundation for a 2012 or 2016 presidential bid. These political oracles reportedly went so far as to describe her as a "diva" and a "whack job" after she began deviating so ruinously from her script. However, perhaps a more accurate retrospective diagnosis is that we were witnessing the full-blown manifestation of a self-caricature that developed throughout the campaign--and which was necessary for selling the previously unheard-of governor to the base. If Palin hopes to lead the GOP out of its rut, alongside the symbolically significant new RNC Chairman Michael Steele, she will first and foremost need to transcend her current role as the character children see on the front of a GOP cereal box.

To become "formidable" Palin must reverse this self-caricature, which will require an understanding of how it arose in the first place. The genesis was perhaps her first one-on-one, high pressure experience: the interview with Charlie Gibson, which revealed someone unlettered, unprepared and presumably in over her head. Her fight-or-flight response, following the even more cringe-inducing Katie Couric interview, was to transform into a mascot--something abstractly symbolic--to stave off the overbearing demands for a demonstration in policy acumen. Indeed, a mascot need not bother his or herself with matters of such gravitas.

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To introduce herself to the national political stage, Palin went overboard in creating the image of a Washington outsider, "maverick", bucolic, moose-hunting, hockey-mom who was just right for "Joe Six-pack." (By the way who was Joe Six-pack, Joe Camel's cousin?) The "don'tcha knows" and "gosh darn it's", coupled with that idyllic wink immortalized during the Vice Presidential debate, could probably not have been any more contrived at the time. But these antics creepily sank in and eventually appeared sincere. Though this caricature-like effect led to the intended saturnalia among ardent party loyalists--Joe the Plumber, Tito the Builder, and the rest of the "Village People"--it had an adverse effect on anyone who was even the least bit skeptical of such an inchoate candidate.

We now find ourselves three months hence, and three months since the self-caricature trajectory was at its apex. Admittedly, the Alaska governor may be improving her image by using more respectable political avenues than just spectacle-driven talk show appearances. This week she authored an op-ed for the Minneapolis Star Tribune to argue against a bill that would prohibit drilling in ANWR. And she has also entered the gubernatorial fray in Texas by endorsing Republican Rick Perry. But it is not yet clear whether these maneuvers will benefit her credibility.

One thing that surely won't help is her ongoing row with "the media." Her media-blaming gambit with filmmaker John Zeigler following the election was ill-received and seen as gratuitously souring, revealing that she is still rather naive when it comes to safely navigating the public sphere. Needless to say, the video footage of Palin in front of a turkey-beheading machine is precisely the type of thing she needs to avoid. Much of this will depend on luck, but Palin should indeed follow Gingrich's advice to recruit the best and the brightest advisors available. Still though, beyond cramming up on policy, the "hockey mom" must become a real person again.

She has a few years to wipe the slate clean and to make everyone forget the days where she was naught but a party mascot, prone to cutesy winks and demotic catchphrases. It won't be easy though, with a public that thrives on schadenfreude and that is unlikely give up such a public wellspring for ridicule as the Palin we all remember from the election. She has likability, but so does Tony the Tiger. What would help her most is to be taken seriously--to achieve the "Pinocchio effect" that will furnish her with the more subtle authenticity she so direly needs.