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A rising young governor from a state remote from America’s media is given a big national chance. The governor does not perform well, hideously badly in fact. But the governor learns from past mistakes, executing a shrewdly planned strategy to win a presidential nomination and then the Oval Office itself.
That’s the story of Bill Clinton. As Sarah Palin planned her own comeback strategy, she could have learned a lot from it.
Clinton’s big chance took the form of a prime speaking slot at the 1988 Democratic convention: the speech nominating the party candidate, Michael Dukakis. The speech was a disaster, boring and condescending. The biggest applause line was when he intoned, “In conclusion . . .”
Clinton understood his mistake. He wangled an appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show eight days later. He told jokes. He played the sax. He left host and audience laughing and clapping.
Clinton plunged back to work in Arkansas, winning re-election in 1990 to an unprecedented fifth term in the governor’s office. He honed his credentials as an effective chief executive, and sat for interviews with the country’s toughest journalists. In January 1992, on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, a cover story on Bill Clinton proclaimed: “The first primary has been about IQ rather than cash–and Clinton is the easy winner.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now it’s Palin’s turn. In a recent Gallup poll, 63% of Americans said they would “never” consider voting for her for President. A candidate for president would normally wish to counteract such a negative impression. Palin’s post-campaign actions have reinforced them.
Instead of attending to her job as Alaska governor, she quit halfway through her first term.
Instead of following Charles Krauthammer’s advice to “go home and study and spend a lot of time on issues,” she has cashed in on the paid speaking circuit, always off the record.
She has declined to face questioning from the press. She has been drawn into an unseemly public flame war with the father of her grandchild.
She did no fundraising for the two Republican gubernatorial candidates on the ballot in November. She has had little of substance to say about the huge public decisions of the first Obama year. What she has said has been inflammatory and untrue: especially her accusation that the Obama plan would haul Down’s syndrome children before “death panels” empowered to deny them life-saving medical care.
Now comes the book and the book tour. According to an AP report about the book (which hasn’t been released yet), anyone who hoped it would reveal a more thoughtful side to Palin is in for disappointment. The book is a folksy personal story, spiced by score-settling against her campaign colleagues and the media.
Unburdening yourself of grievances can feel good. But given that Palin’s detractors have depicted her as thin-skinned, aggrieved, and vindictive, it hardly seems smart to publish a book that confirms the negative impression.
Bill Clinton was thin-skinned too, but he took care not to show it. When Johnny Carson asked him back in 1988 what candidate Dukakis had thought of the speech, Clinton answered that Dukakis had liked it so much that he had asked Clinton also to introduce George H. W. Bush at the Republican convention. He laughed and clapped at Carson’s jokes at his own expense. No “quit making things up.”
But maybe Clinton is the wrong comparison. Maybe Palin isn’t really running for president. Maybe she is running to consolidate her status as a merchandisable victim-icon: not Bill Clinton after 1988, but Al Gore after 2000.
In the first three years of the Bush administration, Gore gave voice to the rage of the Democratic base. A lifelong centrist Democrat, he suddenly steered hard to the angry left. He equated George W. Bush to Orwell’s Big Brother and damned Bush supporters as “digital brown-shirts.” He trafficked in conspiracy theories about the Iraq war and apocalyptic exaggerations about the environment.
Gore disqualified himself for the presidency. The candidates he backed–Howard Dean, Ned Lamont–mostly lost. But he made himself first a martyr, then a celebrity, next a global brand, and finally a multimillionaire.
It’s not the presidency. But it may be more fun. Why campaign, when you can tour? Why seek votes, when you have fans? Why be Evita, when you can be Madonna?
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.
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