I’ve finally had the time to finish “The Rogue Room,” Robert Draper‘s cover article from the November 21 Sunday edition of the New York Times. It is an inside look at Mayor Palin’s “inner circle” of advisers who the former Alaska Governor thinks she can “trust.” (Normally the Liberal Ironist uses the honorific to refer to our public figures, in acknowledgment of past contributions and experience; however Palin’s considerable limitations on these counts makes the application of the “Governor” honorific arguably unearned. While I understand some will find this petty, in Palin’s case I consider it just desserts: She has styled herself in contrast to a professional politician–a strange tactic when considering a run for the most powerful office in the World. She was a Wasilla–then-pop. ~5,000–city councilman for 4 years and Mayor of Wasilla for 8 years; then she spent several years in the Alaska state bureaucracy and served as Governor of Alaska from December 4, 2006 to late-July 2009. Considering the near-2 months she spent campaigning with John McCain in 2008, she was the Governor of Alaska, a state kept afloat by massive Federal budget outlays, for just over 2 years. The likely reason she resigned is because the day-to-day business of actually being Governor of Alaska would have precluded her crafting a credible image as a small-government Conservative.)
The article is Draper’s fruits for a vetting process that went on for months as her irregular, non-hierarchical group of advisers questioned him and debated the merits of his interview. All of this led to a revealing history of Palin’s past 2-plus years in national politics, an account that reads respectfully but is very unflattering in what it shows about Palin’s mentality and sense of direction. Consider the consequences of her non-traditional media organization for her own ability to produce opinions on matters of policy:
“Press reports variously name Fred Malek; Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard; and Kim Daniels, a conservative lawyer, as key advisors, when in fact Daniels has not worked for Palin for several months and Malek and Kristol are seldom in contact with her. ‘It’s nearly every single day we learn a lesson about a person who claims to speak for us or work for us,’ Palin told me. ‘Seems 9 times out of 10, Todd and I look at each other and say, “Who is this speaking for us?”‘”
This–and the succeeding mention of 4 actual political advisors to Palin who have weekly conference calls without Palin’s input–highlights what makes Palin unequal to the task of the Presidency; having rejected formal titles for her political advisors out of a desire for the freedom to make ad-hoc personnel decisions to reward loyalty, she still feels victimized by her inability to control who will speak on her behalf. This is a logical outgrowth of her unwillingness to go through normal press channels, to name advisors to recognizable positions that require accountability, and her signature tactic of shooting from the hip, spouting off personal criticisms and trying to de-legitimize other media sources without returning to basic questions of policy or principle. Her behavior as a national political fixture strongly suggests narcissism: Refusing to act like a professional politician, revealing a bad attitude in the way she talks about her political opposition, and refusing to engage the media the way the other politicians do, she then finds herself compelled to insist that she really wants to talk about the issues, that she has been the victim of a smear campaign, and that the media holds a grudge against her. The 2 essential features of most past Palin statements that I’ve seen is their personal rather than principled nature, and their hypocrisy of her attacks in light of her own defensiveness.
This brings me to my core criticism of Palin: She has no vision. Draper revealed this in his long and circumspect account of Palin’s surface-deep evolution in the limelight–and that without even trying:
“…(T)he prevailing narrative of Palin in 2009 was that she was an incompetent ditz. This year’s story line is that she is a social-media visionary who purposefully circumnavigated the power-alley gasbags and thereby constructed a new campaigning template for the ages. The reality is that Palin’s direction is determined almost entirely by her instincts–or, as Fred Malek puts it, ‘There is no über-strategy…'”
There isn’t a strategy because Mayor Palin has no goals outside of increasing her own power. She isn’t trying to change the political culture, to protect a set of political values, to make the country stronger or unleash the entrepreneurial spirit. For all his faults of judgment, the unsustainable risks of his brash foreign policy and complete naiveté–shared by almost all of us–about the over-leveraging of our financial sector, George W. Bush did in fact possess a vision about where he wanted to take the country. His about-face from a Realist to a Neoconservative foreign policy was by far the biggest transformation from what he promised to do as President to what he did. He postured against gay marriage during his 2004 re-election campaign for political advantage and immediately abandoned the issue after his re-election; other than that, he generally meant what he said, and he was as predictable as he was stubborn. When he defended the majority of Muslims against bigoted hostility after September 11th, or when he promoted immigration reform to give undocumented migrant workers a means to naturalization, he wasn’t doing it to appeal to the Republican base but to expand and transform it. The despised and very-jaded Karl Rove may have been the idea man, but the President was standing on principle. Palin, on the other hand, is transparently jockeying for political advantage with her party’s base in the absence of any further purpose. She says what she says not because she is spirited but because she is concerned with staying in the thoughts of those whom she thinks are already sympathetic. She has no principles and nothing to do with the power she seeks. Her early opposition to the “Ground Zero Mosque” (actually a Lower Manhattan Islamic community center) and endorsement of the anti-immigrant Tom Tancredo and Sharron Angle in the last election is an example of the sort of demagoguery that George W. Bush never resorted to.
Draper had the opportunity to ask Mayor Palin about her 2006 gubernatorial campaign message of comity between the parties. Her response was equal parts unremarkable, disappointing and unconvincing: “…(T)hey go home. It doesn’t matter what you do. It was the left that came out attacking me. They showed me their hypocrisy; they showed me they weren’t willing to work in a bipartisan way. I learned my lesson. Once bitten, twice shy. I will never trust that they are not hypocrites until they show me they’re sincere.”
This explanation, which I do not believe, suggests that Palin was willing to entertain bipartisanship until it became a challenge. One could say she is “once bitten, twice shy;” one could also say she has just claimed she will respond to the low road with the low road. Our past 3 Presidents, though each would sometimes speak in partisan terms when they felt they were being blocked, didn’t assume their most-vocal opponents spoke for the rest, and didn’t stoop to their level. Lacking a vision for the country or the perspective to set a good example in her actions, Mayor Palin isn’t a conventional politician; she’s something less, a follower of the crowd.