West Wing Resuscitating the Republicans with Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin's presence on the stage at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul was hardly impressive. But her party hasn't seemed so human in a long time. Palin's weaknesses may turn out to be her greatest strength.
Von Gabor Steingart

Was Sarah Palin convincing on Wednesday night in St. Paul? There is a long and a short answer to that question.

The short answer is no.

The 44-year-old governor of Alaska recited in her thin voice a laundry list of accusations levelled at the Democratic candidate for president Barack Obama. One could describe her speech -- generously -- as brash. But it could just as easily be called hubristic.

The longer answer, though, is yes. Palin did a great service for the Republicans.

Her weakness, as it turns out, is her greatest strength. The party of George W. Bush, responsible for one unnecessary war (Iraq) and one necessary but unsuccessful war (Afghanistan), hasn't looked so human for a long time. Plainness, as it turns out, can be inviting -- and flaws can be beneficial.

Palin's manifest vulnerability goes a long way toward protecting the Republicans from the accusation that the party wants to seamlessly continue the tenure of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. She came out of nowhere, breezy, bold and inexperienced. She is not belligerent or devious enough to be seen as a hawk. Her conservatism may seem antiquated, but it is certainly not aggressive and arrogant.

Morally, Sarah Palin tends toward rigidity. She is a devout supporter of abstinence-only programs instead of sex education in schools, a position that her own 17-year-old daughter shows as being impracticable. Indeed, at first blush, it seemed a profound embarrassment to both Palin and her party that, in the same week as the Republican National Convention, McCain's newly-crowned vice-presidential candidate had to admit to her own daughter's unplanned teen pregnancy. The Republicans wanted to talk about the myriad threats facing the world -- and suddenly they ended up in the bedroom of Palin's daughter.

But. This particular embarrassment is one that could turn out to be profoundly useful. Indeed, mixed in with the schadenfreude coming from the American left is a certain amount of respect for a family that has treated a potential disaster as little more than real life.

On Wednesday evening in St. Paul, Palin's pregnant daughter Bristol -- along with her boyfriend Levi Johnston -- appeared on the convention stage with Sarah, her husband Todd and the rest of their five children. Palin was visibly proud and sanguine. Her family is no different from any other in America, Palin told the gathered delegates. "Our family has the same ups and downs as any other … the same challenges and the same joys." And sometimes, she said, "even the greatest joys bring challenge."

It was at that point when her family's private life became a political strength. The message was clear: In Sarah Palin, American mothers would have a friend and a representative in the White House.

The fact that the American media went after her immediately after McCain announced her nomination -- the accusations ranged from naiveté to dishonesty -- also didn't hurt. She's not going to Washington D.C., she said, to seek the "good opinion" of the media. She's not part of the "Washington elite," she said, and she's going there to "serve the people of this country."

With one passage in her speech, Palin managed to transform herself from a member of a party which has governed America for eight long years into an opposition politician.

For Barack Obama, whose anti-Washington campaign she apparently seeks to emulate, she had little more than disdain. "This is a man who has authored two memoirs, but not a single major law or reform." Obama may be proud of the fact that he was a community organizer, Palin said, but she was mayor of her hometown in Alaska -- "a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer except that you have actual responsibilities."

It is impossible to gauge the effect of her Wednesday night appearance right away and it's not likely that her speech will immediately make itself felt in the opinion polls. But it will have an effect. She was unsophisticated enough not to frighten voters. The unsteadiness of her voice and posture seemed endearing rather than coldly calculated. She didn't say much -- but she set a tone.

Republican Party strategists must be satisfied. If one wants to extend the term of a party which has fallen as far as Bush's Republicans have, one has to pull a rabbit out of the hat.

A rabbit which seems fresh and unsullied. Like Sarah Palin.

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