Ross Douthat’s advice to the media on Sarah Palin, which Peter Wehner wrote about on Monday, will be hard to follow. Douthat uses the metaphor of a marriage to frame his points on Palin and the media. But in this “marriage,” third parties play a decisive role — and in a telling way, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) filled a particular role this past weekend. Coburn, for whom I have great respect, has been a favorite with the Tea Party demographic because of his reputation as a fiscal hawk and constitutional-process curmudgeon. But in an interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, Coburn failed to deliver in exactly the kind of situation in which Palin rarely disappoints her base.
Here is a key passage from Mediaite’s summary of the Coburn interview: Gregory persisted by saying some on the right speak of President Obama as an “outsider who is trying to usher in a system … that will injure America and deny them of their liberty” and wanted to know if Coburn rejects that idea and also the use of violent metaphors in political discourse. Coburn agreed that he does reject that, and Senator Charles Schumer added “we as elected officials have an obligation to try and tone that down, and if we tone it down, then maybe the media will be less vociferous.”
Quite a few Americans would say Coburn rejected the wrong thing. What he should have rejected was the rhetorical pairing of the right’s political ideas with “violent metaphors in political discourse.” Coburn didn’t question the terms in which David Gregory presented the proposition: as if proof of civility and peaceful intent could only be established by rejecting certain of the right’s political arguments against Obama’s policies. In the video clip, the senator came across as calculating, perhaps a little impatiently, that meeting Gregory’s test of “civility” was a minor but essential concession.
I imagine Coburn would defend it as valid for the people to disagree on basic political ideas, if the question were put to him directly. But in the context of a buried premise in a Sunday talk show, it didn’t seem to occur to him to make that point. It does, manifestly, occur to Palin. I don’t disagree with pundits who would like to see her be more succinct and less reactive to the personal element in media attacks on her. But the people hear with different ears: for every auditor who cringes at her style or extraneous commentary, there is another who hears, first and foremost, that she is affirming precious ideas to which other politicians are not moved to give voice.
Palin’s persistent popularity as a public icon is a financial factor for the media — and it’s not one they control. They could decline to talk about her, decline to feature photos and video clips of her, but they understand the connection between Palin, sales, Web hits, and audience share. Palin is a figure whose market power has been established through a direct bond — of love or hate — with the people.
This doesn’t mean she is or should be a front-runner for 2012. The issues are separate. My own belief is that a successful GOP candidate will find a way to transcend the arena of slings and arrows without making political compromises to secure its quiescence. Palin may not have transcended the slings-and-arrows arena, but her potential competitors have all, to varying degrees, made the kinds of compromises that Tom Coburn modeled this past Sunday. As long as other leading Republicans let their discourse be governed by a set of buried premises that disqualifies the right’s political ideas at the starting line, Sarah Palin will have devoted supporters and a prominent voice.