At least they know their audience

AT LEAST THEY KNOW THEIR AUDIENCE…. Ross Douthat has an interesting column today, primarily on Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, both of whom, Douthat argues, have made the same mistake with regards to their futures.

As the columnist sees it, Palin and Huckabee “owed their appeal more to personality than to substance,” and would have been wise to “take their newfound eminence seriously” and start hitting the books. Instead, they chose to “cash in on their celebrity,” leaving them no better off when it comes to gaining credibility and/or positioning themselves for national office.

There’s something to this. Both Huckabee, a two-term governor, and Palin, a half-term governor, have presidential ambitions, but both are burdened with a weak understanding of public policy and a general indifference to serious work. With no day jobs, Palin and Huckabee could have begun learning things en route to building a national platform. Neither chose wisely.

But this was probably an either/or situation for the former governors. The column notes, “It’s possible to be a celebrity and a serious politician at the same time: Barack Obama’s career proves as much.”

Yes, except Obama is dealing with an audience that seeks out and honors serious politicians. As Isaac Chotiner explained, Palin and Huckabee aren’t.

The first problem with this argument is that … Palin is unlikely to become a policy wonk because she is not very smart. What’s more, Douthat’s argument is tautological. Sure, it would be nice for the GOP if Palin and Huckabee were interested in policy. But if they were interested in policy, then they would not be so appealing to the GOP base.

In other words, the problem is that a large part of the right has no interest in a policy wonk, and sneers at intellectuals and elites and the types of people Douthat would like to see running the party. A candidate who was interested in learning the ins and outs of the welfare state and health care policy is unlikely to ever achieve Palin/Huckabee levels of popularity with the grassroots.

Quite right. The two competing bases find different qualities appealing. The GOP base is enthralled by “leaders” who boast about their apathy for intellectualism, elites, and book learnin’. The Democratic base tends to find this kind of dumbing down of politics insulting.

Palin and Huckabee see value in maintaining popularity in advance of likely national campaigns. No part of that scenario includes showing the slightest interest in public policy details.