Palin, Steele, & Populism
Daniel Larison on why conservatives have been critical of Michael Steele, but defended Sarah Palin:
Steele does not have the benefit of a verbose, mistake-prone counterpart to distract us [like Palin did with Biden], but even if he did the reaction to Steele would have been nothing like the response to Palin. In other words, Steele’s blunders on substance are treated as badly damaging and activists insist that they require immediate correction, while Palin’s blunders were spun as imaginatively and desperately as any politician’s answers have ever been spun. This is a bigger problem than pushing unprepared leaders into the spotlight–it is a clear preference for one kind of style, namely the combative pseudo-populist act, over whatever style Steele has at the expense of any consideration of the merits of what these leaders say. The takeaway is that Steele is being ripped apart for making statements that are not terribly different from Palin’s campaign statements on the very same issues, and somehow she is still considered a rising star by the very activists who are ripping Steele.
I think Mr. Larison has a valid point. Republicans went to extreme lengths to defend Ms. Palin, and they have not been similarly generous to Mr. Steele. Part of the reason may be a preference for a “combative pseudo-populist act,’ as Mr. Larison unflatteringly describes it. But, for a number of reasons, I think this badly misses the mark as a complete explanation. The first is that it’s no longer campaign season. Sarah Palin joined a Presidential ticket three months prior to an election. In contrast, the first few months following an inauguration are generally calm, which provides more opportunities for self-criticism. If you are going to quarrel internally about who should be leading the party, this is probably the best time to do it because the stakes are low. Notice Republicans were harshly critical of John McCain for several years prior to his selection as the nominee, but those criticisms were toned down during the last several months of the campaign.
I also think the issue matters. Republican voters care a lot more about abortion than the nuances of the Bush Doctrine or what periodicals Ms. Palin reads (or doesn’t). Moreover, Ms. Palin had just delivered a widely praised speech at the Republican Convention, which was followed by McCain’s first lead in the polls. While I think conservative attempts to defend her after the interviews were strained, there was at least some evidence that Ms. Palin might be worth defending. She was, after all, a self-made, successful governor with sky-high approval ratings in her home state. It’s hard to make a similar case for Mr. Steele at this point. Add these factors together, and I think the picture is a lot more complicated than a simple preference for combative pseudo-populism. As Mr. Larison notes, ‘whatever style Steele has,’ (hip-hop Republicans?) he has been atrocious so far at articulating basic components of the Republican platform. Republicans can hardly be blamed for trying to correct this now rather than during the next campaign season.