The Huffington Post reported on September 29th that the support for health care reform is again on the rise after the down slide of August. The report is based upon the newly released poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation that shows that fifty-seven percent of Americans now believe that tackling health care reform is more important than ever -- up from 53 percent in August. The proportion of Americans who think their families would be better off if health reform passes is up six percentage points (42% versus 36% in August), and the percentage who think that the country would be better off is up eight points (to 53% from 45% in August). The summer of rowdy town hall meetings, shout fests, and accusations of fascism, socialism, communism, and death panels seems to be winding down, cooling along with the fall temperatures.
In looking at these polls, it is helpful to compare them to the presidential election polls of 2008. After all, who can forget the Republican rallies of the summer of 2008? The parallels between the summer of 2008 and the summer of 2009 are unmistakable: the heated, hate-filled rowdiness, the lack of civility, the same accusations of un-Americanness, the anger, hatred, and noise, the empty rhetoric, the sheer ugliness. The list goes on and on.
The common denominator between the summer of 2008 and the summer of 2009 is Sarah Palin. When Palin enters a debate, the issue, whatever it is, becomes immediately attractive. Then things get rowdy. They get hateful. They get heated. They gain momentum. However, this momentum does not last long.
Let's look at the presidential polls from the summer of 2008 a little closer. Going into the summer, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still in a bitter fight for the presidential nomination by the Democratic National Party. It was not until the May primaries in North Carolina and Indiana that Barack Obama started to break away from Clinton. Still, Hillary Clinton refused to concede and marched on to June primaries. The polls showed this divide among Democrats. John McCain and Barack Obama went up and down in the polls , often trading places. Only in June did Barack Obama start to pull ahead of McCain, but still within statistical error margins.
Then on August 29th, John McCain made the surprise announcement for his vice-presidential pick of Sarah Palin. On September 3rd, she delivered a 40-minute speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. She delivered the most unforgettable one liners of the whole election season: "hockey mom" and "lip stick." The numbers shot up for the McCain/Palin ticket, and all the polls bore this out. With the convention bounce and the exuberance surrounding the fresh face of Palin, McCain's favorability hovered near 50% in the Gallup Poll , reaching 48% of likely voters saying they would vote for them during the week of September 5-7 while 43% said they would vote for Obama and Biden.
Following this bounce, however, reports of the rallies started to filter through into the press. Palin's rallies were attended by those shouting profanities at Barack Obama, calling for his head. Palin herself fueled this rage by describing Barack Obama as "palling around terrorists" because he "is not a man who sees America like you and I see America." There was no question that Palin owned these one-liners and she delivered them with all the prettiness she could muster to a crazed, mostly white, crowd, fueling their repressed anger.
Then came the interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric that showed her to be awfully under-prepared for a national office. The fire of the summer died down quickly along with her credibility. The last time McCain/Palin and Obama/Biden tickets were neck and neck in the polls was during the week of September 22-24 when each ticket had 46% of votes among likely voters. The Obama/Biden ticket pulled away from the McCain/Palin ticket after that all the way until the November elections.
If one looks back at this brief history of Sarah Palin, the bounce that she gave the GOP presidential ticket, and the continued rage that was felt at the rallies she attended, a similar trend emerges also in the health care debate of the summer of 2009. The health care reform was starting to get heated when Sarah Palin entered the debate with her infamous "death panels" posted on Facebook on August 7th. She wrote:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Then the summer of 2009 started to resemble the summer of 2008 again with Sarah Palin providing the one-liners fueling the rage and hatred at the town halls. The media was in the grip of these events unfolding during much of August following Palin's entrance into the debate. Deja vu all over again. Signs saying "Obama wants to kill your grandma" began to show up at rallies along with pictures of Obama as Hitler, the Joker, etc. Reports of shouts, profanities, uncivil behavior by mainly white town hall attendees started to fill the news outlets. The words "death panels" began to be used widely by those debating on the issue both on the right and the left, and they became the catchword for most of the GOP politicians hosting the town hall meetings.
Then again in a deja vu moment, the heat began to subside. Reports started to circulate that the majority of Americans support health care reform. The president's speech on September 9th to the Congress on health care was well-received by the general public. The so-called "Tax Payers March to Washington, DC," held a mere day days after the speech, became the target of ridicule by journalists and bloggers alike. The fact that the sheer majority of the marchers were overweight white people was not lost. Neither was the fact that most of them sounded Southern. Nor the fact that most of those interviewed didn't seem to know what they were saying, whether it was "czar," "communist," "socialist," or "fascist," or other one-liners.
The number of attendees, estimated to be about 60,000-70,000 by the DC police, but exaggerated to 1.5 million by conservative news outlets, became the subject of ridicule. The "March" was soon perceived as the coda to the cacophony of the noise that pervaded the summer rather than the beginning of a revolt of any kind. Bill Maher's blog on The Huffington Post on September 18th seemed to capture what was on a lot of Americans' minds:
Unlike most liberals, I'm glad all those teabaggers marched on Washington last week. Because judging from the photos, it's the first exercise they've gotten in years. Not counting, of course, all the Rascal scooters there, most of which aren't even for the disabled. They're just Americans who turned 60 and said, 'Screw it, I'm done walking.' These people are furious at the high cost of health care, so they blame illegals, who don't even get health care. News flash, Glenn Beck fans: the reason health care is so expensive is because you're all so unhealthy.
So here we come to the final observation. When looking at the summer of 2008 and the summer of 2009 together, we find that the GOP and the GOP driven agenda quickly found flame with the entrance of Sarah Palin who brings attractiveness to the table. They shoot up in popularity for a few weeks, driven by one-liners from Palin, delivered by her as loudly as possible. However, once the novelty of these one-liners wear off, the noise clears, the dust settles, and the plain fact of the vapidness of these one-liners become apparent. The polls slide. After all, arguments without substance do not hold for long whether they are delivered by pretty faces or by an angry crowd.
It seems that Sarah Palin is trying to fan the flame again with the early release date of her book, Going Rogue. It remains to be seen what kind of effect her book will have. If the lesson of the last two summers is any indication, without substance, Sarah Palin will fade away quickly. She will once again be remembered only for the one-liners and for the smirk with which she delivered those one-liners.
One thing is certain. If you rise too fast, if you peak too early, then you fall just as hard. It is a lesson that the GOP needs to learn in order to stay relevant for the majority of Americans who consider themselves to be in the center. We are all in this together for the long haul. Not for the short-lived flames.