Palin’s comeback

Yes. Sort of.

Friend of the Program Matt Lewis has mea culpa of sorts at the Daily Beast regarding Sarah Palin. Since her big rookie year in 2008, Lewis argues that it’s been all downhill for the erstwhile conservative rock star

Yes, in 2008, Sarah Palin delivered one of the finest convention speeches I’ve ever heard (trust me, I was there), but she hasn’t exactly been channeling Winston Churchill ever since. Remember her big speech at CPAC a couple of years ago? You know, the one where she took a swig out of a Big Gulp and said of her husband Todd: “He’s got the rifle, I got the rack.” Not exactly a great moment in political rhetoric.

Palin indicated she was “interested” in running for President in 2016. Of course she did; without the possibility (threat?) of a future campaign, her relevance on the speaking circuit may dwindle. Let’s be honest: that’s the only place where she still has any clout.

It didn’t have to be this way. Palin made a conscious choice in her positioning during and after the 2008 Presidential campaign. John McCain rushed her into prime time, and she and her advisers decided to embrace the spotlight by offering folksy, populist rhetoric. That goes a certain distance, but only that certain distance.

Palin decided not to buckle down, narrow her exposure, and build a reputation (or, if you like buzzwords, a brand) around a certain issue set. She could have been the energy expert of the Republican Party, or the person pushing female GOP candidates from dog catcher up to Senator. Better yet, she could have put her head down and spent two or six more years as an effective governor of Alaska, building the stockpile of experience that was missing from her debut.

Most importantly, she could have – and should have – altered her tone. As Lewis notes, Palin has always been the victim of vague forces seeking to destroy her – the “establishment,” the “lamestream media,” and others have apparently taken turns  trying to pull the rising star back to Earth. There’s a value in taking on institutions, but people only root for underdogs who have a chance to become overdogs. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Soon after the smoke cleared from the 2008 campaign, good communications advisors would have told her to stop sounding like a reality show star and start sounding like a policy wonk. Instead, she signed on to do a reality show.

If Palin wants to regain some of the gravitas she has lost, she’ll need to do more than just rehabilitate her image and tone. She’ll need to become a policy expert and recognized champion for an issue or suite of issues. And she’ll need to sound coherent and knowledgable.

If she can’t, Palin has already hit her ceiling.

Obama’s press strategy is nefarious and manipulative – copy it!

Politico greeted night owls and early risers to a fantastic article about the White House press strategy.  The tenets have been the same for every President, controlling the President’s public image through strategic use of information – but no President has had the options that Barack Obama has.

Since great minds steal, anyone seeking to copy the Obama team’s strategy should consider three major points:

1. News outlets are no longer the gatekeepers for mass media exposure.

White House photographers have been commonplace in the past few decades; Politico notes that the current White House has made those photographs ubiquitous on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.  That these channels exist allow the President to go over the media’s head, but without mass media branding they wouldn’t work as well.

Ronald Reagan and his predecessors faced three networks and a handful of national newspapers.  Bill Clinton presided over the rise of cable news networks, as MSNBC and Fox joined CNN to increase scrutiny on the sturm and drang of partisan politics; online media helped increase that during George W. Bush’s administration.

Big News is now the victim of its own success.  There’s now a general awareness of political comings and goings, enough that political topics spill into entertainment shows.  And think about all the channels on your TV dial today.  Quasi-news shows – like The Daily Show, The View, and the Today Show – now allow politicians to maintain visibility without getting asked hard questions.  President Obama will have plenty of eyeballs on him when he fills out his NCAA brackets this year, but ESPN’s Stuart Scott probably won’t ask him any pointed questions about Benghazi or gun control.

(Sidebar: Wouldn’t it be hilarious if Obama did run into a tough line of questioning on ESPN of all places?  “So you like Duke to come out of the South Region.  What did you think was going to come out of the south when you shipped those guns to Mexico?”)

2.  Brand matters

This visibility serves to underscore a certain identity.  Visibility in and of itself is one thing, but carefully selecting the outlet where you’re seen helps create a message.

Obama wants voter to identify with him personally, so sharing his love for sports on ESPN helps.  Brief interviews to network anchors, fluff interviews on The View, and vague calls to action in the State of the Union all serve to underscore that he’s in control, but not so wonkish that he would be unapproachable.

Obama is able to pull this strategy off now because he is the President, has had two national campaigns, and is a known personality to most Americans.  During his 2008 primary campaign, he had to create that interest by launching a campaign that looked and felt different from traditional campaigns – from the Pepsi-ish logo to the embracing of supporter-created materials.  Sarah Palin tried to eschew the “lamestream media” in favor of communication via Facebook post – but her story was already written for her when she abruptly resigned as governor.  Her branding efforts were far more traditionally political, so they predictably flopped when she tried to use non-traditional outlets to reinforce them.

Palin’s attempt to bypass the media is a good example of how a clumsy, ham-fisted attempt to mimic Obama’s White House is doing can backfire.  If you’re running for dog catcher and there’s no demand for media accessibility, some of these won’t work; however if you’re the person everyone wants to interview, you can call some of the shots.

3. Working harder and smarter trumps media bias.

For decades – decades! – Republicans have groused about media bias.  They’ll point to surveys that show reporters tend to vote Democrat, and they’ll moan that no Republican will get the same treatment as Obama.

There will always be folks like Chris Matthews who fall in love with candidates like Obama and worship them with an illogical fervor that gives cult followers a run for their money.   But the creation of good coverage by the Obama Administration is more the result of meticulous work than a happy accident of reporter preference.  The communications team knows where the President needs to be seen and how to make the most out of each channel they use.  Backed with the currency of access to the White House, they put themselves in a position to write the rules of engagement – and aren’t shy about doing so.

Will [INSERT GOP CANDIDATE HERE] be able to create a carbon copy in 2016?  Probably not in terms of outcome.  But in terms of overall attitude, strategies, and tactics, a lot of what the Obama Team does is worth swiping.

You Say You Want A Revolution?

This week, Revolution came up on my iPod on the way home from work one night this week.  Years ago, when I worked at the Leadership Institute, many of my colleagues enjoyed this song.  Travelling to campus after campus helping students build conservative organizations in overwhelmingly left-wing environments, we were at the forefront of the conservative revolution.

Listening to the lyrics again this week, the cautionary tune for the radical left of the 1960s and 1970s sounded like an appropriate warning for today’s political would-be warriors.

Monday night just hours after Chris Cillizza posted what read like an obituary for Sarah Palin.  Listen to the lyrics, and The coverage of her break with Fox News framed Palin as the poster child for soundbite-driven Republican party that was short on ideas.

Palin was hardly the only center-right figure to fall into this trap, so you can’t blame here for being the driving force behind the anti-intellectual discourse of the past four years.  It’s just as wrong to claim vapidity is the exclusive property of the right.  Remember that Palin’s 2008 ticket lost to a campaign that was paper thin behind the glowing ideas of “hope,” “change,” and “Yes We Can!”

There’s a lesson in that loss, and it’s summed up in the oft-quoted line, “But if you carrying pictures of chairman Mao / You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.”  Conservatives like to point to this and say even the hippy-dippy Beatles understood that communism sucks.  Possibly, but that’s not really the point.

Anyone who carries their politics on their sleeve is someone who gets avoided pretty frequently.  They are the people you defriend on Facebook because of their long screeds against corporate America and because they call you a fascist for liking McDonald’s french fries.  They are the people that can’t hold a conversation without talking about the encroachment of the Federal government on our collective rights.

These folks may have a point (except the french fry guy because McDonald’s is awesome). The problem is they bend over backwards to make it.  They’re trying too hard.

President Obama in one of the most overtly liberal Presidents of the past century.  That’s fine, he didn’t get elected because of his beliefs.  No President does.  Heck, no politician does, really.  That’s why it’s laughable to hear any analysis of a Republican primary where one candidate is deemed “too conservative” to win.  There’s no such thing as too conservative to win.

There is such a thing as too crazy to win.

Anyone who really wants a revolution (on either side) needs to remember that to avoid falling into the trap that Palin and other Republicans have for the past decade.

After all, we all want to change the world.

Sarah Palin needs James Carville

Here’s the headline from Sarah Palin’s Facebook post yesterday: “Another ‘WTF’ Obama Foreign Policy Moment.”  The content of Palin’s post, by and large, is actually quite interesting stuff about how many secrets we are simply giving away to the Russians.  That’s a pretty intelligent topic, and Palin does grasp it.  But even in discussing an issue over which she has mastery, Palin leans on blunt-force and simplistic messaging.  “WTF” is, of course, shorthand for “what the f—.”

It’s vulgar and coarse and unfitting a President.  And as long as Palin continues to look unpresidential, she will only be considered a Presidential contender by a cadre of Ron Paul-esque followers and the “lamestream” media she claims to abhor but who gives her more attention than she currently deserves.  She will win nothing.

A Presidential adviser might be able to get away with such language, and perhaps Palin needs a James Carville.  Bill Clinton could never have dismissed allegations of his extramarital affairs as the product of dragging a $100 bill through a trailer park.  Carville did, and in doing so he said what many people were thinking but afraid to say.   He acted as the lightning rod for criticism, but he got his boss’s message out there.

Instead, Palin tries to be both the candidate and the firebrand.  She too often talks down to an electorate that is really looking for someone who can talk up to them.

This is part of the challenge Palin and other outsiders face in political campaigns; the inability to surround themselves with media-savvy professionals leads to clumsy, overly populist messaging.  Sure, a few will take it seriously, but most will either dismiss it out of hand or respond with a quizzical “WTF?”


Strasburg: Obama or Palin?

Merry Strasmas!  With California, Arkansas, South Carolina, and other states taking a turn as centers of the political universe, Washington, D.C. is free to be the center of the baseball universe today thanks to Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg, has little professional baseball experience, yet is already the standard-bearer for his team.  In that way, he’s a little like the 2008 versions of both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

DC likes to claim to be a secular town, but it’s a town that looks for saviors almost constantly.  Whichever political party is out of power and seeking a way back in looks for the Chosen One who can at once articulate his or her side’s philosophy while appealing to wide demographics of the electorate.  The list of would-be saviors is truly bipartisan: Howard Dean, Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson, Wesley Clark, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Bradley, and John McCain have all been set up at various times in the last decade and a half to ride in on the white horse and save their party from ruin.  Stephen Strasburg’s role as the savior of a franchise coming off consecutive 100-loss seasons and mired in last place is appropriate for the dialect of his new home town.

Having been mostly dominant in a quick ascendancy through the minors, Strasburg certainly looks like he belongs on the next level – just like both Obama and Palin looked like they were ready for the big stage of national politics in easily winning a Senate seat and a governorship, respectively.  Both stumbled a bit out of the gate – allowing interviewers or non-scandals to take them off message.  But Obama was prepared and came back from early hiccups to win his primary and, eventually, establish the perception of polished confidence.  Palin never really got on track, and her debut on the national stage seemed rushed.  Accounts of John McCain’s Vice Presidential selection process seem to confirm that she was rushed through the minors.

When Strasburg, who has been pitching professionally for less than a year, toes the rubber tonight, the Nationals will hope he is a player whose time has come, albeit earlier than most expected, and who will trust his stuff through the inevitable early struggles.  They will hope they haven’t given the ball to a pitcher who isn’t quite ready for the big leagues.

They will hope for the pitching equivalent of Barack Obama.  They will not, however, want Barack Obama actually pitching.

Apple, the iPad, and the Palin effect

The fact that Apple’s iPad will be released at the conclusion of Holy Week is entirely appropriate, given how some in the tech press are treating this arrival. (“Behold!  Your new God!”)

But as much fun as it would be to deflate the hype, the iPad will most likely be a runaway success – not only because it’s probably neat to play with, but because Apple is the Sarah Palin of the tech industry.

Hear me out.

Apple has had detractors for years – from complaints about the difficulty in transferring legally purchased but DRM-restricted songs among multiple devices to criticisms about the walled garden  that is the iPhone/iPod touch app store.

Yet, their track record for translating innovation to consumer success is built on a cultural coolness factor that transcends technical specifications.  And Apple capitalizes on this through the app store – inviting third parties to have some sort of vested interest in the product’s success.

The Wall Street Journal announced their iPad subscription model last week.  Amazon’s Kindle reader dominates the electronic book market today; but a free iPad application is an apparent nod to Apple’s emergence in that market.  Apple is so culturally entrenched they didn’t even have to pay for product placement when Modern Family devoted a show to the iPad release.

Apple has created a cycle – its products have been successful, so new product lines will attract third party support from companies looking to cash in – which will in turn make those new products successful.

The other new product debut from an established brand came on Fox News, where “Real American Stories” television special launched with Sarah Palin as the host.  The show’s debut comes a week after the announcement that she will host a documentary on Alaska for The Learning Channel.

Like Apple, Palin has cultivated a strong core following and reputation that invokes attention – from supporters and opponents alike.  Fox News and The Learning Channel both know this translates controversy, media buzz, and ultimately ratings.   And as is the case with Apple, third party groups (like TV networks) to have a stake in the attention that Palin receives.  In many ways, she doesn’t even have to be creative about how she’s presented – just as Apple largely relies on app developers to define how the iPad is used.  Those third parties benefit, and therefore have a vested interest in her continued visibility.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

So if you find yourself watching the coverage of the iPad and wondering whether or not it will earn enough industry support to eventually take off, ask yourself how long you’ll have to go before seeing something about Sarah Palin on TV.

Where do you get your news from?

Eighteen months ago, Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin was roundly criticized for being unable to answer Katie Couric’s question about what newspapers she read frequently to get her news.  Palin’s answer was “most of them.”

It’s actually a good answer poorly worded.  According to a report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 92% of American’s “graze” on news from multiple sources and on multiple platforms. Only 35% even have a “favorite” source.  So even if the dinosaurs of traditional media – such as the CBS Evening News – are losing viewers, it doesn’t mean the public is less informed.  Actually, it probably means the opposite.

Perhaps Palin should have responded to Couric’s ridiculous question with something like: “Well, Katie, even up here in Alaska it’s a digital age.   The morning newspaper and the evening news are important, but you can’t stop there, and we have access to news sources from all over the world.  I don’t limit myself to a single source or a small group of media outlets.  What well-informed person would?”

Palin vs. Family Guy: IT’S A TRAP!

It’s old news, but the Sarah Palin v. Family Guy flap shows the danger of dabbling in pop culture references without doing some homework.

The former Governor of Alaska made headlines by smacking Family Guy for a Down Syndrome-afflicted character who claimed her mother was “the former governor of Alaska.”  And all of a sudden, it’s the early 1990s again, when Dan Quayle (a Republican who was named as a Vice Presidential candidate despite doubts about his readiness for prime time) took a swipe at the TV show Murphy Brown when the title character had a child out of wedlock.

Family Guy is a poor target for Palin’s ire, featuring frequent jokes about a wheelchair-bound main character and occasional cameos from a Greased-up Deaf Guy.  Why start hammering Seth MacFarlane and Company for making fun of the handicapped now?

Compounding the issue for Palin is the fact that the actress who claimed to be Palin’s daughter was voiced by an actor with Down syndrome.  Suddenly, the actress is in the position of authority on how to handle the issue and Palin is an outsider to the Down syndrome community.  If MacFarlane was looking to bait Palin into looking foolish, he could not have planned it better.

This also makes for another early 1990s parallel: one of the Fox Network’s first hits, In Living Color, featured a handicapped superhero played by Damon Wayans.  Wayans escaped criticism because he had, as a child, suffered from a club foot.

No offense, but #$@& Alaska…

Sarah Palin may be the most scrutinized governor in the history of Alaska – a state that many Americans probably didn’t actually know was a real place up until last August.  Her resignation has only stoked that attention – and as Stanley Fish wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, media coverage refuses to take her words at face value that she feels the political system is broken despite the era “hope” and “change” that was supposed to be ushered in last January.

Here are some economic facts worth considering: Ben Stein, the former Nixon speechwriter who gained fame as a bit player in John Hughes movies in the 80s, commanded $30,000 per speech when he hit the college speaking circuit for Young America’s Foundation a few years back.  Palin could likely pull down $35,000-$40,000 a night speaking to packed college auditoriums.  In other words, she could probably pull down the annual $125,000 salary of an Alaskan governor inside of a week.  Not to mention that a wise PR director would make sure she had local TV and radio appearances.  And this doesn’t even take into account corporate speaking engagements, which she could probably charge double or triple for.

It all adds up to a lot more than most 45-year-olds earn on a yearly basis – especially 45-year-olds with five kids and a grandchild.  But there’s as many political reasons why her choice may be right for her as there are economic reasons. If you were Sarah Palin and had something to say about the state of the country, which would be a better platform for you – Governor of Alaska, a political office where you have constant legal challenges and criticisms, or giving speeches from coast to coast for a week or two a month, commenting on radio shows here and there, and writing books and opinion pieces?  And if she wanted to start her own think tank or 527, there are plenty of people who would line up to give her money – her already well-supported PAC reported a spike in fundraising after her resignation.

Given that her first exposure to national politics resulted in a steady drumbeat of opposing voices calling her a dolt at best and an unfit mother at worst, this may be the avenue to engage in the national debate on her own terms – and to reposition herself if she wants to make a future run for the Presidency (which, incidentally, only pays about $400,000).

“Politically speaking, if I die, I die.  So be it,” said Palin on Good Morning America – reflecting the candor which attracts her most dedicated followers.  She may not want to get back into the fray of electoral politics, but Palin is far from politically dead.

Rebuilding around Palin

The New York Times and CNN both ran stories this morning about Sarah Palin being the standard bearer of the Republican Party over the next four years, and possibly longer. (The Times piece includes a quote from my former boss, Morton Blackwell, positively giddy about getting within four feet of Palin at a fundraiser.)

It’s true that Palin’s ascension to the VP spot on the ticket was a symptom of the GOP’s short bench – but no more than John McCain’s ascension to the top of the ticket. But she was also the best pick – a true small government conservative – and moving forward, she has the potential to give a credible voice to the Party from well outside the Beltway.

And though her support outside her conservative base has suffered from a harsh campaign, her wounds may not be fatal. Even Linda Bloodworth-Thomas – the television producer who used an entire episode of Designing Women to bash Clarence Thomas (no relation) – said she was fed up with the “demonizing” of Palin and red-staters.

It’s not hard to get sick of the treatment she has received, including the attacks on her experience (from the campaign of a guy who only has a Senate seat because Mike Ditka allowed it) and a silly RNC clothing budget controversy – which is a top story for all our major news outlets because everything else in the country is apparently going pretty well.

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