If Sarah Palin had decided to contend for the GOP nomination, could she have secured it and gone on to defeat Barack Obama in the 2012 general election? Although most of her supporters are convinced she would have accomplished both tasks, my opinion is not likely to be a popular one among my brother and sister Palaniste.
Don’t get me wrong. I was one of the first to recognize that Gov. Palin is a remarkable woman, and her political instincts are nothing less than exceptional. I’ve been blogging in support of her for three years. But this isn’t my first political rodeo. I’ve been a student of American politics since the 1960 battle for the White House over half a century ago. One of the more illuminating lessons of that historic election was uncovered in analysis of audience reaction to the Kennedy-Nixon debate. Those who watched on television were convinced that JFK was the clear winner, while those who listened on radio were equally sure that Nixon won it hands down.
Four years after Kennedy’s eventual victory (which was won by just 0.1 percent of the popular vote, 49.7 percent to 49.6 percent), communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, was published. In it, he coined the phrase, “The medium is the message,” meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. Sarah Palin’s message, which should be what matters most, has been overshadowed and greatly distorted by the master media manipulators of our age.
Most Americans, including likely voters, don’t know much, if anything at all, about Sarah Palin’s record as a city councilwoman, mayor, oil and gas commissioner and governor up in remote Alaska. Indeed, many believe that the entirety of her political experience consists of the partial term she served as governor before she was scooped up and deposited on the national political stage as John McCain’s running mate in 2008. Though the media at first dutifully outlined her political resume, before the RNC convention had even wrapped up, it had faded into the background and was soon forgotten. All the talk was about an unmarried daughter who was expecting a child.
And so Sarah Palin hit the campaign trail and went where the geniuses who ran the McCain-Palin effort off a cliff told her to go for media interviews. Never in U.S. electoral history had a vice presidential candidate been grilled on foreign policy issues as Sarah Palin. Despite the fact that Russia and Alaska are in such close proximity, have many cultural ties and are trading partners, the takeaway from the media was that Gov. Palin could “see Russia from her house,” something she never said. But that punch line from a weekly television comedy show became the measure that her take on U.S. foreign policy was to be judged by a public that was barely paying attention. Never mind that whenever the Russians test our air defenses with their Tu-95 “Bear” Bombers, as they still do to this day, it is always done in the skies within sight of the 49th state’s coastline. But the medium is the message.
And so it went for the rest of the 2008 campaign. That which the left proposed, the media eagerly disposed, and the first woman to be elected governor of Alaska was reduced to a caricature of herself. She who governed mostly as a centrist on social issues was transformed into an evangelical theocrat. She who worked with both political parties in Alaska’s best interests became perceived as an extreme right wing ideologue. The media kept hammering away at Sarah Palin in this manner for three full months, shaping the perceptions of most voters — at least when the media even bothered to
report distort her governing philosophy and issue positions. Most of the time, the media focus was on far less substantial matters, including her daughter’s stormy relationship with the ne’er do well father of the governor’s grandson, a wardrobe she never requested nor shopped for but acquired for her family by the McCain campaign using RNC money, and other trivial pursuits, each one distorted by a media which was not only cheer leading for the Obama-Biden campaign, but also functioning as the referees on the field where the political game was played.
After the election, the media continued to chip away at Sarah Palin’s image, and what had been seen for those three months of the campaign was extended over a period of three years. When her political enemies in Alaska discovered how easily they could file bogus and frivolous ethics complaints against her, they did so more than than twenty times, and the media reported each one as front page news. But when each case was summarily dismissed or decided in the governor’s favor, the story was buried in the back pages, if it was even reported at all. To their credit, Sarah Palin’s supporters pushed back against the lies and media distortion, but we were mostly preaching to the choir.
It was not until the summer of this year that clubs of sufficient size were fashioned that could beat down the media’s Palin narrative. The first was ironically the result of the media’s determination to gain access to Sarah Palin’s private emails from the first two years of her time as governor of Alaska. Though salivating reporters and editors had hoped to find truckloads of dirt on the woman they knew was an existential threat to their precious Obama, what they uncovered turned out to be compelling evidence of a capable administrator who governed competently, thoughtfully and ethically. So the emails were quickly forgotten. The second club came in the form of Stephen Bannon’s excellent documentary “The Undefeated.” Though unabashedly a pro-Palin film, it nevertheless presents the truth about her record as a reformer who battled and defeated cronyism and corruption in her own political party. Bannon’s effort is as persuasive as it is steeped in details no policy wonk can resist devouring. Many who were not favorably disposed toward Sarah Palin have become her supporters after just one viewing of this landmark film.
But there’s a problem. It takes time to change widely-held perceptions. It took Richard Nixon eight full years after his 1960 general election defeat to recast himself in the image of a winner. Nixon also had several other key factors working in his favor, not the least of which was a superior political organization. That organization allowed him to defeat his rivals for the GOP nomination, a field which incidentally included Ronald Reagan. Perception and organization are two necessities Sarah Palin needs to have working in her favor to win both her party’s presidential nomination and a general election. Both require a lot of time and no end of hard work. Consider that he media has taken three years to fashion its image of Sarah Palin. It will take at least that long to repair the damage that has been done to her reputation by her political enemies, and the most serious work on that front has only just begun.
The Bannon film was only released on DVD this month, which makes the timing for it to have a significant impact this election cycle less than optimal. Yes, it can change thousands of minds before the first primaries are held a few short months from now, but millions — not thousands — of minds need to be changed. That takes time which Sarah Palin does not have, at least not to win the present election cycle. The governor’s supporters, if they take the long view, can use “The Undefeated” to win over those millions, but it will take more than a few mere months to do so. Taking the long view has the advantage of making time work in the governor’s favor and not against her. But that requires no small measure of patience on the part of her troops on the ground.
The same is true of the task of building an effective campaign organization. Time was working against the organizational effort being made on the governor’s behalf, but only to the extent that November, 2012 had been the target date. Organize 4 Palin has done work which is no less than heroic, but no matter how unconventional a Palin presidential campaign may be — if there is still to be one — it must regardless abide by certain conventions. If O4P takes the long view, it can harness the latent power of the grassroots to take control of the Republican Party’s basic electoral building blocks. Precinct captains and county chairmen currently control this structure, one which gives them access to voter lists and the other war materiel of electoral combat. By forging alliances with local TEA Party groups, O4P can rebuild the GOP infrastructure in a manner which will be favorable to a future Palin presidential run. It’s amazing how many precinct and country party posts go uncontested, which leaves them ripe for the picking. It is similarly not a daunting task to get oneself made a delegate to the party’s local, state and even national conventions. This is the sort of work which has to be done to wrest control of the Republican Party away from the politics-as-usual types who wield its power today. Again, if the goal is, say, 2016 or 2020, it is very doable.
Though I take Gov. Palin at her word that family considerations were primary in her decision not to run for president this time around, I have to believe that image and organization were at least secondary reasons of consequence. If her supporters look ahead, keep their feet on the ground and do the legwork, they can not only change the media-shaped public perception of her to that which is told by her true story, but they can also make the Republican Party a much more Palin-friendly organization. The lessons of this electoral cycle can be valuable learning for Sarah’s Army. Like a year spent at a war college, her troops can come away from their experience fully armed and ready for battle. But it will require them to get the stars out of their eyes and see the nuts and bolts of basic political construction and how they can be used to build a formidable grassroots organization.
Sarah Palin is no Richard Nixon, and that’s to her credit in many ways. But if “Tricky Dick” could make himself into a winner after a humiliating defeat, and years later into a elder statesman after the biggest political scandal in American history, it should be no problem for Sarah and her supporters to correct her image in the eyes of the majority of voters. Remember, Nixon managed to change his own image even after the media had made him into a political pariah, declared victory and left him for dead. In four years’ time, with her supporters using the media resources available to them to make an electorate much more receptive to her message and remaking the Republican Party into one that fights for her rather than against, I’d be willing to wager that she would have a difficult time saying no to a Draft Palin movement. Consider that the perceptions and concerns of some of the family members can also possibly change over a period of years. In the meantime, she will be doing her part to change hearts and minds. If her supporters can do the same, perhaps it will be history in the making. If the medium is indeed the message, why don’t the Paliniste use the media, including such powerful resources as “The Undefeated,” to make the message her message?