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Broder's Palin Worship Revives Stupid Candidate Theory

February 11, 2010

Back in 1999, the New Republic displayed then Governor George W. Bush in a dunce cap to tout its cover story, "Why America Loves Stupid Candidates." Judging by David Broder's fawning paean to Sarah Palin today in the Washington Post, it may be time to debate the stupid candidate thesis again.
Ironically, Broder's ode to Palin ("Sarah Palin displays her pitch perfect populism") arrives on the same day that conservative Jonathan Kay warned about the real story coming out of the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville. "Never mind Sarah Palin and the tricornered hats," he wrote in Newsweek, adding, "The tea-party movement is dominated by conspiracist kooks." Reviewing with concern the bizarre gathering of Birthers, Bircher, Deathers and Deniers, Kay fretted:

Perhaps the most distressing part of all is that few media observers bothered to catalog these bizarre, conspiracist outbursts, and instead fixated on Sarah Palin's Saturday night keynote address. It is as if, in the current overheated political atmosphere, we all simply have come to expect that radicalized conservatives will behave like unhinged paranoiacs when they collect in the same room.

Speaking of media observers fixated on Sarah Palin, that brings us to David Broder.
While the likes of Rich Lowry, Chris Wallace and Matthew Continetti aren't shy about their near orgasmic reaction to Palin's looks, among her bathwater drinkers Broder is convinced Sarah has captured the mood of the nation: Counting himself among the lonely few who saw depth and gravitas in her speech Saturday, he described Palin's display of "display the full repertoire she possesses, touching on national security, economics, fiscal and social policy, and every other area where she could draw a contrast with Barack Obama." Broder insisted:

Take Sarah Palin seriously.
Her lengthy Saturday night keynote address to the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville and her debut on the Sunday morning talk show circuit with Fox News' Chris Wallace showed off a public figure at the top of her game -- a politician who knows who she is and how to sell herself, even with notes on her palm.

Cautioning that "those who want to stop her will need more ammunition than deriding her habit of writing on her hand," Broder concluded "the lady is good" if not necessarily very smart:

This is a pitch-perfect recital of the populist message that has worked in campaigns past. There are times when the American people are looking for something more: for an Eisenhower, who liberated Europe; an FDR or a Kennedy or a Bush, all unashamed aristocrats; or an Obama, with eloquence and brains.

For Broder, Palin's appeal instead rests with her "self-portrait that fit not just the wishes of the immediate audience but the mood of a significant slice of the broader electorate."
And as history shows, that kind of self-portrait, augmented by repeated proclamations of authenticity by the media, has proven a winning formula in the past.
Summing up the "Stupid Candidate" thesis in December 1999, Calvin Trillin noted:

One of the New Republic pieces, by Jonathan Chait, argued that, partly because voters seem to be in a mood to prize personal authenticity over ideas, candidates see some advantage in presenting themselves as, if not flat-out stupid, at least aggressively nonintellectual.

In 2007, the New Republic again examined the impact of manufactured authenticity in a profile of soon-to-be Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson. Recalling the rented red pick up truck that the DC lobbyist used the burnish his everyman credentials (a gambit recycled by Scott Brown in the 2010 Massachusetts Senate race), TNR's Noam Scheiber argued that Thompson's past success wasn't merely the result of social issues trumping economic self-interest:

A rival explanation comes care of my colleague Jonathan Chait, who largely blames the press for enabling this scam: Republicans, according to him, realized long ago that political reporters are much more interested in making vague characterological pronouncements than reporting on matters of policy, or even relating biographical details. The GOP has exploited this quirk by placing character at the center of its campaign strategy, surrounding its candidates with the right atmospherics and mounting personal attacks on their opponents. Democrats, by contrast, believed themselves to be on the right side of most issues, and so they never invested much in these efforts.

Chait described how Republicans consistently win elections despite overwhelming disdain for their policies among the American people in his excellent 2007 book, The Big Con. In a nutshell, Chait argued that Republicans must convert elections into contests of character because they simply can't win on issues. While their man, be it George W. Bush or John McCain, is the "authentic" guy you'd "like to have a beer with," the GOP drives the media conventional wisdom that paints the likes of Al Gore, John Kerry and now Barack Obama as effete, out-of-touch elitists whose positions change with the wind:

"Media outlets functionally affiliated with the Republican Party have been able to create news that makes its way into the nonpartisan media. It is a kind of machine that manufactures images of character.
The Republicans' seminal insight was that the random process by which small events come to wield great symbolic insight into the character of presidential candidates didn't have to be random. It was possible to prime the pump, in a way."

For his part, TNR's Scheiber suggested a potential flaw in Chait's theory:

But the flaw in both these explanations, I think, is the premise that voters want bona fide populists but are somehow voting for fake ones instead. What if voters want exactly what they're getting? What if they knowingly vote for fake populists because fake populism is a highly appealing proposition?

Liberals' error, Scheiber contends, is that working-class voters "don't aspire to be slightly better off than they are today; they aspire to be rich."

Now ask yourself: If you were a working-class voter in Middle America, what kind of rich person would you want to be? Would you want to be the kind of rich person who eats at pricy French restaurants, plays classical guitar, and vacations among the cognoscenti in Sun Valley, Idaho? Or would you want to be the kind of rich person who snacks on peanut butter and jelly, reads Sports Illustrated, and kicks back at a ranch in the middle of nowhere?
The difference between you and the first kind of rich person is a vast cultural chasm. The only difference between you and the second kind of rich person is a hefty chunk of cash...
You could easily imagine yourself fitting in with the second group. And that's more or less what Fred Thompson and George W. Bush are suggesting when they throw on the shit-kickers and turn up the drawl. Sure, they're phonies. But, if you were rich, you'd want to be the same kind of phony- -not a John Kerry kind of phony.

If that description sounds like the newly wealthy Sarah Palin, it should.
One small example reflects just how well that dynamic is working. When native son Barack Obama returns to his home state of Hawaii, the likes of Cokie Roberts and Kevin Madden call it a "foreign, exotic place." Of course, when Sarah Palin or the entire Republican National Committee goes there, the silence is deafening.
Meanwhile, what Jonathan Chait deemed the Republican media "machine that manufactures images of character" is humming along at full speed. Just ask Sarah Palin.
And David Broder.
UPDATE: On the same day that Time's Joe Klein joined Broder in praising "the brilliance of Sarah Palin," new polls from Gallup and the Washington Post quantified her flagging popularity. Only 11% of Republicans supported for their party's 2012 presidential nomination. And as her approval numbers dipped below the levels she reached when first named as John McCain's running mate, "even among Republicans, a majority now say Palin lacks the qualifications necessary for the White House."

2 comments on “Broder's Palin Worship Revives Stupid Candidate Theory”

  1. Unqualified office holders are anything but a rarity in this land. Just call roll in Congress. If that isn't convincing, come down to Texas and kick a few pickup truck tires in our capitol. It might just give you second thoughts about man having evolved after all.
    This is nothing new - to quote Emerson: "Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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