John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


The Palin Paradoxes

Posted on November 18, 2009

Before it was even finished, her book was on the best-seller list. Her Facebook musings make headlines and change elections. Her offer to have coffee with the secretary of state dominates the weekend talk shows.

Sarah Palin is big news. No matter what she says, what she writes, what she does, she makes waves.

She has it all. She has undeniable sex appeal (see the Newsweek cover), a propensity for gaffes (the media love gaffes), a passionate following (right-wing Republicans), an ear for the sound bite (think death panels) and an ability to draw a crowd.

Those who thought that once Palin left the Alaska governor’s office she would leave the political stage (um ... that would include me) were wrong. Leaving her day-to-day job was probably the best thing that ever happened to her. It freed her to work on her book and her various social-marketing sites.

And now Republicans are forced to confront the Palin factor. What does it mean? How can she help? How will she hurt?

When considering Palin and her impact on the upcoming political campaign, it is helpful to think in terms of the five Palin Paradoxes.

The Distaff Paradox. Palin is a champion for working women and perhaps one of the most attractive female politicians in our nation’s history. As the famous liberal actor Alec Baldwin put it in a memorable “Saturday Night Live” skit, “You are a lot hotter in person.” Despite Palin’s attractiveness and historic campaign as a vice presidential nominee, she polls very poorly among female voters. Despite the hope among Sen. John McCain’s campaign staff that she would help prop up the women’s vote in last year’s presidential election, the gender gap was worse than ever for the Republican ticket. Only 39 percent of women surveyed in an ABC poll viewed her favorably.

The GOP Paradox. Palin’s run as a vice presidential nominee was historic, especially for the Republican Party. But that doesn’t mean that she is a loyal Republican. In fact, from the very beginning of her political career, she has made a habit of taking on Republicans. In her home state of Alaska, she drove the Republican governor out of office on a reform platform. As soon as she started on McCain’s campaign, she looked for ways to protect her own image, constantly clashing with the campaign’s senior aides. Earlier this year, she made a drama out of her presence (or nonpresence) at a Republican fundraising dinner, finally showing up, even though she was disinvited by one of the hosts. And the first time she decided to participate in a special election, the New York 23rd Congressional District, she dissed the Republican candidate and backed a third-party insurgent.

The Family Values Paradox. Much has already been said about Palin’s social conservatism. Much has also been said about the travails in Palin’s own family, the soap opera that surrounds her daughter and her grandchild and her daughter’s media-hungry ex-boyfriend. Some commentators have pointed out the seeming hypocrisy of Palin backing abstinence programs, when clearly her own daughter wasn’t practicing what her mother was preaching.

But the Family Values Paradox is actually a national phenomenon and not just a Palin thing. Which state has the highest divorce rate, for example? The very socially conservative Oklahoma, home of Sen. Tom Coburn. As many sociologists have pointed out in the past, it is no surprise that those who preach family values the most tend to be confronted on a daily basis by its decline. Palin’s support for family values is in no way diminished by her own family’s problems, especially among her supporters.

The Experience Paradox. Palin has limited practical experience when it comes to governance and politics. She showed her inexperience during the campaign, when she lamely made the case that she could handle foreign policy by commenting on how close Alaska is to Russia. But Palin’s inexperience is no liability, especially among her most passionate supporters. Indeed, many of her voters believe that spending too much time inside the nation’s capital is a disqualification. Most voters wouldn’t feel comfortable hiring a doctor or even an auto mechanic who had little experience. But for some reason, they still feel that too much political experience is a bad thing. And that experience paradox still plays into Palin’s hands.

The Media Paradox. The more the media work to embarrass or humiliate Palin, the stronger she seems to get, especially with the Republican base. That is the media paradox. Quite clearly, the national media have little love for Palin’s homespun politics and quirky language. But the harder they go after her, the more they make her a star. Katie Couric might have tried to trip her up with a question about what newspapers she reads, and Charlie Gibson might have looked down his nose at her inane answers, but none of that mattered during the campaign. Especially among conservatives — who have no use for most of the media elite — Palin’s media martyrdom only solidifies her position as a bona fide conservative leader.

Palin doesn’t do that well with female voters. She isn’t particularly loyal to the Republican Party. She doesn’t necessarily practice what she preaches on family values. She has little experience. And the media hate her. Looks to me like she is a serious contender for the Republican nomination. And that sums up the Palin Paradoxes.

John Feehery, who worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005, is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm.

Subscribe to the Feehery Theory Newsletter, exclusively on Substack.
Learn More