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.

15 Responses to Palin, Steele, & Populism

  1. paul zummo says:

    I think John Henry’s explanation is much better and more substantive than Larison’s. As John notes, these are very different circumstances. But more importantly, Sarah’s “flubs” were essentially awkward moments during interviews, whereas Steele’s flubs indicate that he holds positions at odds with pro-lifers. It’s not just style, it’s substance.

  2. Gerard E. says:

    Precisely, Paul. First he says we’re getting tough and pushing the mooshy moderates out. Then flubs bigtime on this CNN show quickly cancelled because no one watching but host and immediate family. But enough to cause ruckus. Specifically- he was baited to dump on Rush. Bad idea to The Base. Then this Catholic school grad started weebling and wobbling on abortion. Now backpedalling and What I Really Meant-ing and oh dear if GOP can’t strike it rich in 2010 why open the doors in the morning. Sarah’s gaffes come from not being accustomed to scrutiny by chattering classes. Next time around she’ll handle it better. Steele is still questionable.

  3. Tito Edwards says:

    John Henry, Paul, and Gerard may be on to something.

    I am just trying to hide my face whenever Mr. Steele stumbles in an interview. Maybe he isn’t polished when answering questions on his feet. Maybe he is just getting adjusted to being under the spotlight.

    Probably we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Stop piling on him and defend him to the hilt. Hopefully Mr. Steele will get his sea legs while being under the spotlight.

    He is human so mistakes can happen. Maybe he’ll be a stud-GOP-Pro-Life-Catholic and deliver both houses of Congress to the Pro-Life camp.

    He should be given the benefit of the doubt. He’s articulate, educated on the faith, and photogenic. All powerful variables that we need to advance the pro-life agenda.

    We should definitely circle the wagons around him, rally to his side, and fight like Macabees. He’s one of our own and we shouldn’t stand idly by while others rip him apart.

  4. Gerard E. says:

    Possibly, Tito. But the flubs have got to go. Saw Jim Cramer defending his very existence to Jon Stewart last evening. By the 20 minute mark was getting painful. Was prepared to yell at screen see what your lib New York friends think of you now Jim and imagine what Rush endures every single day so knock off the mea culpas and go back to work. Memo to Mr. Steele- no more interviews. The GQ piece was done by Lisa DePaulo- tabloidy journalist who worked her way up from Philadelphia magazine by making current Gov. Fast Eddie Rendell look dopey. And he’s a Dem. Mr. Steele and Mr. Cramer- they do not like you. And they never will. Get over it.

  5. I think John Henry nails it:

    People would be defending Steele a lot more if he had been drafted as a national candidate in the middle of a high stakes campaign; and he would be forgiven a lot more if he seemed inarticulate but sound on principles rather than potentially fudging on principles.

  6. GNW_Paul says:

    I don’t entirely buy that Steele is flubbing. In the sense that he isn’t clearly articulating what he wants to say – maybe he is flubbing. But that depends somewhat on what he wants to say!

    It seems pretty clear to me that Steele believes that the fiscal and economic policies of the GOP are ‘winners’ and that the ‘values’ positions are losers. So he is doing his best to soft pedal values and reach toward the middle. Steele clearly wants to put all value issues aside. He only wants to give them just enough lip service to not lose votes he thinks the GOP owns anyway.

    Any hope we might have ever had for the GOP should be promptly forgotten. It is time to seriously work on finding another way to move forward!

  7. John Henry says:


    I think you’re probably right about Steele, although even he seems confused about what his real position is. That said, I find your conclusion puzzling. Here’s the sequence as I understand it:

    1) Steele sounds squishy/incoherent on pro-life issues.
    2) Steele is widely denounced by the GOP rank and file.
    3) Ergo, you argue, pro-lifers should abandon the GOP.

    Setting aside other legitimate grievances for the moment, could it be that Steele, rather than the GOP base, needs to go?

  8. GNW_Paul says:

    John Henry,

    If only it were just Steele. Looking back to the primaries, it is clear that a large portion of the power structure (money) in the GOP is right there with him. If they are upset with Steele, it is only because he hasn’t managed to not make it obvious that values voters are considered a liability.

    Besides, I don’t think our association (in the public view) with the most extreme elements in the GOP (anti-government, anti-immigration, anti-regulation – again the extremes) does Catholic and family values voters any favors.

  9. Donald R. McClarey says:

    The GOP is the only game in town for pro-life voters. That is not an opinion but simply a statement of fact. Third party options are an exercise in futility and the Democrats are a lost cause on abortion.

  10. GNW_Paul says:


    You are right.

    Which is exactly why the GOP figures they can sideline us and our issues without losing our votes.

    We need to change the game. Not saying it is easy. But the first thing is the acknowledge that the GOP leadership doesn’t give a rip about us or our issues. They just like our votes.

  11. John Henry says:


    It depends on what happens the next 4-8 years, and who the candidates are. As bad as Bush was on many issues, I think Roberts and Alito were good picks (time will tell). If so, pro-lifers are one vote away from returning abortion to the states, which in turn creates more opportunities for more restrictions on abortion and ultimately less abortions.

    If the GOP nominates McCain/Steele-style candidates, then pro-lifers have little incentive to turn out for the GOP (a large part of the enthusiasm for Palin in many circles was her perceived strength on pro-life issues). But if it’s someone like Huckabee or Jindal who appears to be genuinely concerned about pro-life issues, then I think pro-lifers have good reasons to support the GOP. In the meantime, even some Congressional Republicans might be useful to oppose piecemeal implementation of FOCA-type legislation. To be clear, I don’t think FOCA is going to pass, but I think some aspects of FOCA may be included in other legislation.

  12. Matt McDonald says:

    The answer is clear. WE can not let the GOP meander into the pro-death camp, it is not time to “wait and see” what the GOP will do… it is time to stand up and LEAD the GOP to be more strongly in the pro-life camp. Get involved in your precinct, district and county. These are relatively small organizations, it only takes a few of us with loud voices to move them into a stronger pro-life position.

    When the primaries come around help the most pro-life candidate in each position from dog-catcher to POTUS any way you can. With a 100% pro-life leader and the evidence of Obama’s pro-death position laid bare, go after your liberal Catholic friends, confront them on the hypocrisy of supporting Obama after his evil actions.

  13. Elaine says:

    Agreed with all of the above, but adding that we should also do everything in our power to keep the highly endangered species of Pro-Life Democrat from becoming completely extinct.

    Pro-life is an issue that CANNOT be allowed to become the exclusive “property” of a single political party. At the very least, there should be as many pro-life Democrats as there are pro-choice Republicans.

    I do not think the Democratic Party is necessarily a lost cause on the abortion issue, at least not in the long term, especially with Hispanic voters (who tend to be either Catholic or evangelical Protestant) becoming more and more of a force. One thing’s for sure, writing off the Democrats as a lost cause isn’t going to improve things.

    Please note that I am NOT talking about the wishy-washy Doug Kmiec kind of “pro life” Democrat, I mean genuinely pro-life Democrats, like the late Bob Casey Sr., and Glenn Poshard. (Imagine the grief we Illinois residents would have been spared for the last 10 years if only we had elected Poshard governor!) Yes, I know Casey is dead and Poshard is out of politics, but all the more reason to start working on getting more people like them in the game!

    Although I consider myself Republican, if given a choice between a Bob Casey Sr. type of pro-life Democrat vs. a pro-life Republican, I’d choose the Democrat, because I think pro-life Democrats are in greater need of support.

  14. John Henry says:

    That’s a good point Elaine. As I’ve written elsewhere, I would be happy to vote for a pro-life Dem; unfortunately, there is frequently some false advertising involved (e.g. the current Sen. Casey). Still, it’s important to support genuinely pro-life Dems whenever possible. As the African-American experience with Democrats and urban education shows, it’s never good for a political party to not have to worry about your votes.

  15. […] don’t always agree with Larison, but I think he is right on target […]

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