Political Hay

Rousing the Rabble

Democrats aim to make Sarah Palin's popularity a liability.

By 12.23.08

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Evidence that Democrats consider Sarah Palin a potent political force for the future continues to mount. A Huffington Post blogger went rooting around the comments at the Team Sarah website over the weekend and emerged to announce that he had discovered "something very ugly happening out there in the hinterlands these days -- a brewing cauldron of racist anger being directed at President-elect Barack Obama."

This accusation of "mean-spirited bigotry" was based on a relative handful of comments, far less dramatic than the huffy HuffPoster's hyperbolic introduction suggested. The Christian ladies who run Team Sarah -- Marjorie Dannenfelser, Jane Abraham and Emily Buchanan of the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List -- responded immediately with sanctions against commenters who cross the lines of political decorum. (Of course, decorum is not even an afterthought at Huffington Post, DailyKos or any number of liberal blogs where the comment fields routinely boil with vitriol, but conservatives have long since become accustomed to this sort of double standard.)

The tactic of blaming Palin for "racist anger" toward Obama developed as a theme during the fall campaign, evidently based on post hoc ergo propter hoc thinking within Team Obama. Threats against Obama increased as the campaign heated up after Labor Day, and since this followed the Aug. 29 announcement of the Alaska governor as Republican running mate, Palin herself was scapegoated.

That claim was distilled in a November article in the London Daily Telegraph with the misleading headline, "Sarah Palin blamed by the US Secret Service over death threats against Barack Obama."

The Secret Service never said any such thing and the Telegraph's story didn't actually say that they had said it. Rather, Telegraph reporter Tim Shipman was paraphrasing a Newsweek account of the campaign that quoted Obama adviser Gregory Craig in mid-October expressing concern about "the frenzied atmosphere at the Palin rallies." The same paragraph of the Newsweek story asserted (without attribution) that the Obama campaign had been "provided with reports from the Secret Service showing a sharp and very disturbing increase in threats to Obama in September and early October."

It was the Obama campaign, not the Secret Service, which suggested a connection between the "frenzied atmosphere" around Palin and the threats. Obama himself appeared to believe there was such a connection, raising it in his final debate with John McCain.

That accusation evidently stemmed from an Oct. 14 newspaper report that an audience member at a Palin rally in Scranton, Pa., shouted "kill him" when Obama's name was mentioned. The Secret Service investigated but was unable to corroborate that account, as Newsweek subsequently reported, and yet the alleged threat has entered the colloquial what-everybody-knows version of the campaign.

All this fits within a narrative arc that Democrats and their media allies are constructing around Palin, portraying her as an uncouth rabble-rouser leading an angry (and perhaps dangerous) populist opposition to Obama.

TO WHAT EXTENT can Palin be blamed for this? She was expected to fill the attack-dog campaign role of running mates that has become customary in presidential politics, and she filled that role with considerable gusto. In fact, she got ahead of the McCain campaign in raising Obama's ties to former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers with her now-famous "pallin' around with terrorists" soundbite.

There is nothing to indicate, however, that negative attacks are Palin's preferred mode of political discourse, or that she consciously courts the kind of populist "frenzy" for which she has been blamed. Because she is a Christian mother of five who speaks the language of faith, she is seen as an avatar of the religious right. Yet in interviews, Palin most frequently describes herself as a fiscal conservative primarily interested in energy policy, reform, and economic growth.

Democrats clearly aim to expand this gap between the perception and reality of Sarah Palin by making her an all-purpose symbol of right-wing menace, an emblem of "oogedy boogedy," to borrow Kathleen Parker's evocative epithet.

The eagerness with which a HuffPo contributor seized on a few unfortunate comments at TeamSarah.org indicates that destroying Palin's political viability is a high-priority progressive project. The folks at Team Sarah are clearly aware of this, and moved quickly to declare that the site would "not tolerate comments that can be perceived as racist or hateful."

Policing an online network with more than 60,000 members is "a tough thing," Dannenfelser told me in a phone interview, because Team Sarah "has been such an organic phenomenon…utterly grassroots." The group has no official relationship with Palin, except as a "fan club," Dannenfelser explained.

"A lot of [Team Sarah members] are people who've never been involved in politics before," Dannenfelser said, describing how many of those supporters feel "inspired and uplifted" by Palin.

Inspiring and uplifting the grassroots? Or "something very ugly…in the hinterlands"? Two ways, perhaps, of describing the same phenomenon.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.