Sarah Palin Broke the Republican Party

If you’re old enough, you surely remember when Katie Couric interviewed Sarah Palin shortly after she had been named as John McCain’s running mate back in 2008. It didn’t go well, primarily because it became obvious not only that Palin did not read any magazines or newspapers, but that she was lying about it. It hurt early perceptions of her candor and character, and it also made her look woefully unprepared to potentially become the president of the United States. The interview definitely had a big impact, in large part because it served as a first impression of Palin for most of the nation.

Looking back, Katie Couric isn’t so sure that today’s candidates would be hurt by doing a similar face-plant in a debut interview.

TV news veteran Katie Couric says she’s not sure if the question about reading material she famously asked Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election would have the same impact in 2019 due to what she said was a “concerning” rise in anti-intellectualism.

Palin’s fumbling nonanswer when Couric asked her about what newspapers and magazines she read that had shaped her worldview — “All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years” — was met with mockery, but also raised serious questions about her suitability for the number two spot on Sen. John McCain’s ticket…

…But Couric said that she’s not sure the controversy would have the same effect in the current political environment.

“I’ve thought about that and have wondered, actually — that was in 2008 — if now in 2019 if someone didn’t know the answer to that question, or didn’t know the answer to a lot of other questions, if it would matter,” she said

“I think there’s such a reverse snobbery about intellectuals that I think it would almost be seen as a badge of honor. I think that’s really concerning.”

The former Today show host attributed this to an increase in anti-intellectualism and populism around the world.

“There’s kind of reverse snobbery, weirdly, about scientists, academics, elitists — whatever you want to call them,” she said. “So, I think it’s permeating our perceptions of what science is and what it can do for the world.”

There’s definitely a major uptick in populist/anti-elite sentiment that’s being felt globally, but it’s also doubtful that Palin was hurt as much as a lot of people think. She immediately became a hero to a big percentage of the people on the right precisely because she’d been made to look stupid for not doing things the elites thought she should do. These people identified with Palin and saw Couric as a snob.

What I think changed is that more mainstream, upscale Republicans found it necessary to defend Palin (and McCain, for selecting her) in an effort to avoid a complete collapse at the top of the ticket. It wasn’t just her performance in the Couric interview that they had to defend. They also had to defend her performance in the vice-presidential debate. Throughout her brief time on the big stage during the campaign, she repeatedly demonstrated her lack of preparation for the presidency, and the Republican elites simply made up excuses for her and defined down the minimum expectations people should have for a vice-presidential or presidential candidate.

I’ve long argued that this dumbing down of expectations broke something in the Republican Party. The Tea Party revolution that emerged the next year seemed to flow seamlessly from the breach.  The GOP reverted a bit to form in 2012 by nominating Mitt Romney who no one loved but was unquestionably qualified.  But the voters had been primed by Palin to resist any standards about what a nominee should know or even about how they should act.

So, in a way, I don’t think the times have changed so much since Palin ran for vice-president as Palin’s candidacy changed everything that came after it. After having to defend her, the Republican establishment was powerless to defend itself against the Tea Party or Donald Trump.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com