Five weeks and one vice-presidential debate after joining the Republican ticket, Sarah Palin is not going away. As she proved Thursday night in St. Louis, for those who hoped to make her Dan Quayle, she is not obliging. Already she is rewriting the conventional wisdom that says running mates can only hurt, not help a ticket. Her appeal recalls that of Harry Truman, another vice-presidential selection whom opponents discounted at their peril.
Not long to politics, Palin’s story is relatively short. She was a two-term city council member and then two-term mayor of small town Wasilla, Alaska. In 2006, she was elected Alaska’s first female governor. A reform thread runs through her political career. But until John McCain chose her as his running mate this August, she captured little national attention
Her quick rise has left the Left aghast. By various contrived measures they claim she is unqualified. In doing so, Palin’s critics conveniently forget Harry Truman, another vice president whose qualifications were heavily discounted, yet is now remembered as a popular president and claimed as a liberal icon.
Truman did not attend college. During early adulthood he ran his family’s small farm and was his town’s postmaster. After serving as a captain of an artillery company in WWI, he owned a small clothing store that failed — taking 15 years to pay off.
His political career began when he was elected county overseer of roads. He lost reelection. For the next two years, he held a series of jobs, including being a partner in a bank that also failed. Elected county public works supervisor, the local Democrat machine picked him to run at age 50 for the U.S. Senate. He improbably won and later won reelection. Again, he was fortuitously picked, this time to be vice president, by FDR for his unprecedented fourth term.
Nothing in Truman’s past particularly qualified him to be vice president. In fact, nothing in any of Truman’s previous incarnations ever seemed to particularly qualify him for anything that followed. All this caused opponents to continually underestimate him. Yet he became one of the vice presidency’s greatest success stories — a story culminating in his 1948 presidential election, perhaps the most storied comeback in presidential politics.
THERE IS A STRIKING similarity between Palin and Truman. Both have been underestimated politically. Both struck a chord running against Washington. To shouts of “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” Truman famously ran against a “do nothing” Congress in 1948. Palin has scored points running against a Congress with historically low approval ratings — precisely because she is removed from Washington (the only such person on either ticket).
More important than their political comparison however, is their personal connection. Few people today could tell you what Truman did or stood for. He is memorable for who he was. He had an “everyman” quality, Midwestern and middle class, a life story that most could relate to far more easily than to the aristocratic FDR. He did not just seem to support the common man, he was the common man.
Palin too stands for, and with, a large segment of the electorate that is much discussed, often courted, but rarely represented. Her life story, both victories and challenges, have elements middle class America knows directly. She embodies the “Reagan Democrat” — even more so than Reagan himself, who was long-removed from his Midwestern roots by the time he was elected president.
In all these qualities, but particularly her personal ones, she confounds the Left. They are not simply uncomfortable with Palin, they are offended by her. It should not be surprising. Palin vividly reveals how little rapport the Left has with middle class America. In it, the Left sees a group only to be led, not one to be followed.
It is fitting that the vice presidential debate took place in Truman’s home state of Missouri. The parallels of his and Palin’s popular appeal are as clear as they are understandable. If the Republican ticket wins in November, she will certainly be seen as the most politically potent VP pick since Lyndon Johnson in 1960. She has already succeeded beyond all expectations in drawing attention and energy to McCain’s message and campaign. Who would ever have thought that the Republican VP speech would be only slightly less watched than, and that McCain’s would actually exceed, Obama’s?
At the heart of Palin’s appeal is her mainstream and main street quality. While the Left is extremely uncomfortable with who she is and what she represents, she is extremely comfortable with both…and so is a very large section of the electorate. Her non-resident status in any elite group antagonizes them all, but it endears her to far more. Implicit in their support is a “Give’em Hell, Sarah!” quality. Harry would know exactly what, and who, they mean.
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