Alaska and Alabama may be nearly poles apart in terms of climate and geography, but Sarah Palin showed on Friday night that the two states are about as similar attitudinally as they are alphabetically.
Speaking at a Baldwin County Republican Party fundraiser less than a mile from the Gulf of Mexico, the former governor and vice-presidential candidate clearly was in her element. The crowd from the most Republican county of one of the nation’s most Republican states provided the most receptive audience imaginable for Mama Palin, and she responded with an energetic speech both better than her critics might have expected and not as good as she needs to be if she ever hopes to run again for national office. Palin has the “rally the troops” thing down pat, though one wonders whether, facing a different crowd, she’d persuade anyone who didn’t already agree.
Here’s the first thing she did well Friday night: She worked in local references aplenty, often with humor, in a manner that seemed unforced and natural, even spontaneous, rather than planned or canned. She referenced by name people she had just met, remarked on the novelty of meeting an alligator farmer for the first time in her life, and expressed amusement at an annual event occurring that weekend on the beach, the drunkenly competitive “mullet toss” at the famous Flora-Bama Lounge. (“At first I was confused,” she said. “Do they make mullet-style wigs and throw them, or what?”)
And, after quoting something funny that football player Joe Namath once said, she seamlessly segued to a story in which Namath’s former college coach and statewide deity Bear Bryant once was asked for a ten-dollar donation to help pay for the burial of a recently deceased reporter. “I’ll give you $20,” said the Bear, “so you can bury two.”
This tale gave Palin her first chance to blast the “unjust, unfair” liberal media, a theme to which she returned with shot after often-witty shot all evening. Another theme she frequently sounded was one that’s heard more and more often over middle-American dining tables, though few politicians dare utter it aloud. Namely, Palin would run down a litany of current national ills and then suggest that the Obamite Left fully intended to wreak such havoc.
Our foreign policy, for instance, is in shambles, and the result “has to be purposeful,” she concluded. “We poke our allies in the eye and kind of coddle our enemies. They [leftists] can’t be that stupid.” In other words, it must be their goal to weaken the United States. She also quoted President Obama saying “like it or not, we’re still a superpower” — and by how she described his tone, she clearly meant to indicate that he himself doesn’t like our superpower status one bit.
This inclination to question not only the judgment of the Left but also its motives is the mirror image of how leftists treat conservatives all the time. Conservatives rarely use this tactic, in part because the establishment media would yell bloody murder. But Palin can get away with it because, well, she is Palin, and the media have come to expect that she will say things reporters think are outlandish. If you relish providing red meat for the base, as Palin does, and accept that this conforms to your reputation among friends and foes alike, eventually even your targets will take the slings and arrows somewhat in stride.
Thus, Palin-watchers are not surprised when she calls the Left “un-American,” in reference to the IRS’s targeting of conservative organizations, or blasts the NSA for “spying” on citizens, or slams the administration for repeatedly lying about its debacle in Benghazi, or ridicules “the Orwellian boondoggle of Obamacare” whose mandates are “telling us what to purchase”
The conservative crowd ate it up, and also ate up her predictable call for “a little RINO hunt” and her spirited defense of “wacko birds” — note the implied criticism of her onetime sponsor John McCain, who used this term to mock Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Representative Justin Amash. To the delight of attendees, Palin cast the “wacko birds” and tea partiers as the perfect equivalent of the “Reagan revolutionaries” of the late Seventies.
Palin does all this with an admirable enthusiasm and boundless energy — although at a volume that, when combined with her rather high-pitched voice and Minnesota/Alaska nasality, is perhaps just too darn loud. Most in the audience obviously loved Palin’s speech, but one listener, upon leaving the event, complained, “It’s a shame that woman is just so shrill.”
Therein lies the problem that has bedeviled Palin ever since she burst into the national consciousness in the late summer of 2008: People tend to either love her or hate her, and few change their minds. She has not discarded or modulated an iota of the stylistic uniqueness that characterizes her. Some find her style endearing, but others, including some who are on her political wavelength, find it distressingly off-putting. Likewise with her substance: It is perfectly calibrated to rally and inspire many on the rightmost half of the right side of the political spectrum, but it seems unlikely ever to persuade those in the persuadable middle or, more important, the persuadable inattentives who make up the bulk of the American electorate. Granted, a speaker must match her message to her audience, and Palin’s message in Orange Beach, Ala., Friday night suited most of her audience perfectly. But one wonders whether she’d adjust her content or delivery for an audience not already inclined to love her. In this sense, nothing has changed since she campaigned as McCain’s running mate six years ago.
The best statesmen carefully evolve. As much as conservatives love “The Speech” of Ronald Reagan from 1964, for example, its style and tone (if not its philosophical substance and its most memorable language) are noticeably different from those deployed by Reagan circa 1980. The younger Gipper spoke faster, smiled less, and seemed angrier and less hopeful; he had almost none of the gentle humor with which the older Reagan leavened his toughest rhetoric. If Palin would grow in this sense, she could, with time, move beyond pep rallies for the faithful and into a position of wider influence.
On the good side of the Palin ledger, another thing she does skillfully is link one thought to the next and build an overall theme. This is harder than it sounds. Several weeks ago, national-security legend Oliver North spoke in nearby Mobile and gave a stirring address in which each vignette, expertly delivered, helped instill a love of country or God or both. But as I listened to North, I found myself wondering how he had arrived at one topic from the previous one; I could detect no discernible thread from each to each, much less a cohesive theme. It was a thoroughly enjoyable speech to his University of Mobile audience, but it was also a bit directionless.
In contrast, Palin’s speech developed its central theme clearly: The American people are waking up, and conservative values, bolstering freedom, can indeed prevail. And although there was nothing subtle, complicated, or original about this notion, Palin built a case that moved logically from one point to the next, while dropping in red-meat lines and humorous asides. So it was that she called for more domestic-energy production first for economic reasons, but also because it would bolster the West’s position vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin as the Russians threaten Ukraine. From there, it was a natural progression to the need for diplomatic and military strength, then to the imperative to support American veterans.
In short, Palin’s speech hung together. If it was somewhat simple, it also wasn’t fluff. And it surely was a joy for conservatives in attendance to join in hooting at at “the cocktail parties of power in D.C.” and at Harry Reid as an “opium dealer — that is, O-P-M, a dealer of Other People’s Money.” The applause lines weren’t empty bromides but delivered in service of an agenda of freedom.
“Our message is liberty,” she concluded. It wasn’t original, but the message remains true and important, and she delivered it entertainingly (if sometimes too loudly). Conservatives might need to look elsewhere for somebody to win elections (though she has given no indication she ever plans to run for office), but there is much to be said for the role of rallying the troops. It’s a tougher job than many people credit — and from the Artic ice to the Gulf sands, Sarah Palin does it well.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.