George Will on Sarah Palin and the populist movement

Columnist George Will notes that Sarah Palin is “obsessively discussed as a possible candidate in 2012,” both by liberal and conservatives, but because she has stirred the imagination of the populist movement on the right – which in turn stirs reaction on the left.

Yet in observing that the latest poll shows 71 percent of Americans – including 52 percent of Republicans – think she is not qualified to be president, he asks: “Why? She is not going to be president and will not be the Republican nominee unless the party wants to lose at least 44 states.”

“This is not her fault,” he says. “She is what she is, and what she is merits no disdain. She is feisty and public-spirited, and millions of people vibrate like tuning forks to her rhetoric. When she was suddenly forced to take a walk on the highest wire in America’s political circus, she showed grit.” But “She also showed that grit is no substitute for seasoning,” and this lady quit her office as governor of a lightly-populated state after only 17 months. She was a mayor of a small town before that.

Will also points out that “full-throated populism has not won a national election in 178 years, since Andrew Jackson was reelected in 1832.” William Jennings Bryan lost three times in a row, Perot never got a single electoral vote. “In 1968, George Wallace, promising to toss the briefcases of pointy-headed intellectuals into the Potomac, won 46 electoral votes with 13.5 percent of the popular vote. He had the populist’s trifecta – a vivid personality, a regional base and a burning issue.”

He concludes, “Populism has had as many incarnations as it has had provocations, but its constant ingredient has been resentment, and hence whininess. Populism does not wax in tranquil times; it is a cathartic response to serious problems. But it always wanes because it never seems serious as a solution.”

Right. Populists are always extremely sure of what they’re against, but that’s not enough. You have to have a very good sense of what you’re for. And being “for” being against something isn’t what I mean. Moreover, we all know about the problem with decisions made in anger.

It seems that Palin’s main attraction to many populists is that the left has tremendous disdain for her. They jostle each other aside in their efforts to save the damsel ostensibly in distress – though between her book, her Fox gig, and $100,000 speaking fees she seems to be doing pretty well for herself. And indeed, it’s precisely because she’s able to take advantage of that distressed damsel persona.

So pour out millions more words in her defense, if you will. But be thinking seriously about who can best lead the government in 2012 and what important issues we could be addressing if those millions of words – and the energy of the populist movement – were directed elsewhere.