Liberals had a blast mocking Sarah Palin last weekend when she was caught addressing the Tea Party Convention with a cheat sheet scrawled on her hand. Even the president’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, couldn’t resist getting into the act and treated a White House briefing to a Palin hand gag of his own.
Yet the laughter rang hollow. You had to wonder if Palin, who is nothing if not cunning, had sprung a trap. She knows all too well that the more the so-called elites lampoon her, the more she cements her cred with the third of the country that is her base. Her hand hieroglyphics may not have been speaking aids but bait.
If so, mission accomplished. Her sleight of hand gave the anti-Palin chorus another prod to deride her as an empty-headed, subliterate clown, and her fans another cue to rally. The only problem is that the serious import of Palin’s overriding political message got lost in this distracting sideshow. That message has the power to upend the Obama presidency — even if Palin, with her record-low approval ratings, never gets anywhere near the White House.
The Palin shtick has now become the Republican catechism, parroted by every party leader in Washington. Their constant refrain, delivered with cynicism but not irony, is this: Republicans are the anti-big-government, anti-stimulus, anti-Wall Street, pro-Tea Party tribunes of the common folk. “This is about the people,” as Palin repeatedly put it last weekend while pocketing $100,000 of the Tea Partiers’ money.
Incredibly enough, this message is gaining traction. Though Obama remains more personally popular than the G.O.P., Republicans pulled ahead of the Democrats in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, among others, in a matchup for the 2010 midterms.
This G.O.P. populism is all bunk, of course. Republicans in office now, as well as Palin during her furtive public service in Alaska, have feasted on federal pork, catered to special interests, and pursued policies indifferent to recession-battered Americans. And yet they’re getting away with their populist masquerade — not just with a considerable swath of voters but even with certain elements in the “liberal media.” The Dean of the Beltway press corps, the columnist David Broder, cited Palin’s “pitch-perfect populism” in hailing her as “a public figure at the top of her game” in Thursday’s Washington Post.
That Republican leaders can pass off deceptive faux-populism as “pitch-perfect populism” is in part a testament to the blinding intensity of the economic anger and anxiety roiling the country. It also shows the power of an incessant bumper-sticker fiction to take root when ineffectually challenged — and, most crucially, the inability of Democrats to make a persuasive case that they offer anything better.
The Obama White House remains its own worst enemy. No sooner did Palin’s Tea Party speech end than we learned of the president’s tone-deaf interview expressing admiration for “very savvy businessmen” like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. With that single remark, Obama ingeniously identified himself with the most despised aspects of both Washington and Wall Street — the bailout and the bonuses. He still doesn’t understand that to most Americans, Blankfein is a savvy businessman only in the outrageous sense that he managed to grab his bonus some 17 months after the taxpayers had the good grace to save him from going out of business altogether.
Instead of praising bailed-out bankers, the president might have more profitably instructed his press secretary to drop the lame Palin jokes and dismantle the disinformation campaign her speech delivered to a national audience. Palin, unlike Obama, put herself on the side of the angels, railing against Wall Street’s bonuses and bailout, even though she and John McCain had supported TARP during the campaign. Palin also bragged that she had “joined with other conservative governors” in “rejecting some” stimulus dollars when in reality she rejected only a symbolic 3 percent of those dollars — soon to be overruled by the Alaskan Legislature, which took every last buck.
This disingenuousness is old hat for Palin, who hired lobbyists to pursue $27 million in earmarks while serving as mayor of the town of Wasilla (pop. 6,700) and loudly defended her state’s “bridge to nowhere” until her politically opportunistic flip-flop. What’s new is the extent to which her test-marketed dishonesty has now become the template for her peers in the G.O.P. “populist” putsch. Adopting her example — while unencumbered by her political baggage — the party is exploiting the Tea Party movement to rebrand itself as un-Washington while quietly conducting business as usual in the capital.
There’s “no difference” between G.O.P. and Tea Party beliefs, claims the House Republican leader, John Boehner. Not exactly. The three senators named “porkers of the month” for December by the nonpartisan Citizens Against Government Waste were all Republicans: Richard Shelby of Alabama, Susan Collins of Maine and Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Shelby is so unashamedly addicted to earmarks that he used a senatorial “hold” to halt confirmation votes on 70 Obama administration appointees until his costly shopping list of Alabama pork projects was granted. Or so he did until his over-the-top theatrics earned him unwelcome attention and threatened to derail his party’s pious antispending posturing.
While more brazen than his peers, Shelby is otherwise typical of them. Jonathan Karl of ABC News last week unearthed photographs of various G.O.P. congressmen posing in their districts with stimulus checks that they had publicly opposed. The Washington Times uncovered more than a dozen other Republican lawmakers who privately solicited stimulus money from the Department of Agriculture while denouncing the stimulus to their constituents and the news media, often angrily.
Even the G.O.P./Tea Party heartthrob of the hour, Scott Brown, is not the barn-coat-wearing populist he purports to be. In her speech, Palin saluted him as “just a guy with a truck” who was doing “his part to put our government back on the side of the people.” In reality Brown’s Massachusetts Senate campaign benefited from a last-minute flood of contributions from financial industry donors — with 80 percent of the haul coming from outside the state. It says all you need to know about our politics that his Democratic opponent, Martha Coakley, matched him by holding a fund-raiser largely sponsored by lobbyists for the health care and pharmaceutical industries.
Now that he’s in the Senate, Brown is likely to junk the truck and side full time with Wall Street against Main Street. To do otherwise would be to buck his party’s entire establishment. Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, has already signaled that he’ll fight the Obama administration’s push for a “Volcker rule” to rein in too-big-to-fail financial behemoths. The conservative message guru Frank Luntz has drafted a memo instructing G.O.P. legislators on how to defeat a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency while camouflaging themselves as populist foes of the very banks and credit card companies that that agency would regulate. That’s a neat trick — Luntz’s nonpolitical clients include Merrill Lynch and American Express — and it helps explain why Wall Street is now tilting its contributions to Congressional Republicans for 2010.
Yet it’s the Democrats who are now most linked to corporate interests, thanks to all the backroom deals over health care. More Americans have heard of the Medicaid money shoveled to the Democratic senators Ben Nelson (the January “porker of the month”) and Mary Landrieu in exchange for their health care votes than of Thad Cochran’s $8.75 million earmark for the “Exchange With Historic Whaling and Trading Partners Program” (a proposed cut in the Obama budget). The Republicans are so disciplined at claiming the fiscal-hawk high road that even Jenny Sanford, the wronged first lady of South Carolina, is still defending her husband, Mark, as an uncompromising defender of “hard-earned tax dollars” in her new tell-all memoir, “Staying True.” Though she gives us the skinny on her husband’s philandering, she never mentions the subsequent revelations that expenses for his trysts and other personal travel were billed to taxpayers.
Before he was done in by his Argentine firecracker — and before the emergence of Palin — Sanford was floated by The Wall Street Journal editorial page and others on the right as an ideal ticket mate for John McCain in 2008. As a congressman he had slept on a futon in his office and voted against a breast cancer postage stamp as wasteful “feel-good legislation.” As governor, he refused to take stimulus money despite the fact that South Carolina had the nation’s fastest-growing unemployment rate. When an unemployed man from Charleston caring for a seriously ill mother and sister called in to C-Span last February begging Sanford for help, he didn’t budge. But he did volunteer to pray for the caller and his family.
So it went with Palin last weekend. Her only concrete program for dealing with America’s pressing problems came in the question-and-answer session. “It would be wise of us to start seeking some divine intervention again in this country,” she said, “so that we can be safe and secure and prosperous again.” That pretty much sums up her party’s economic program, at least: divine intervention will achieve what government intervention cannot. That the G.O.P. may actually be winning this argument is less an indictment of Palin than of Washington Democrats too busy reading the writing on her hand to see or respond to the ominous political writing on the wall.
The New York Times