Sarah Palin's self-demolition derby: Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson

May 31, 2011

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson discusses his recent columns and the latest news in a live Q&A. In his most recent column, "The GOP's self-destruction derby," Robinson writes of Sarah Palin, "If her aim is just to get back in the news, reinflate the Palin brand and boost her speaking fees, then party leaders have every reason to be pleased. In the unlikely event that she’s actually running, they have every reason to order another Scotch."

Have a question about Robinson's column and more? Ask now.

Hi, everybody, and welcome to our little free-for-all. Today's column, which has provoked nearly 1,5oo comments thus far, was about Sarah Palin's magical mystery tour and the generally ragged state of the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Make no mistake: At some point, Republicans will get their act together. I'm convinced that they will have a credible candidate, a focus-tested message and a ton of money -- so any Democrat who thinks this is going to be a cakewalk is nuts. But at the moment, let's be honest, the race is a hot mess. Let's get started.

What in the world is the reason for the media's continuing fascination, bordering on (if not actually) obsession, with Sarah Palin? I'm not referring specifically to you and today's column, but instead to what we saw on TV news (both local and network) and in the Post over the weekend -- instead of covering Memorial Day festivities and the Rolling Thunder rally, we instead were greeted by the faux-motorcycle-chick Palin giving her best "you betcha" for the Vets while trying to look more Harley Davidson than the rest of her GOP ilk. Really -- are we going to have to put up with many more months of this non-story, playing into the hands (and bank account) of this egomaniac rather than covering the REAL stories of the day? Why?

Like I said, my fairly anodyne column about Palin has provoked nearly 1,500 comments, and counting. She is charismatic and, for some reason, very difficult to ignore. I'm not making excuses, just trying to give the reason why not just the media but a lot of people find it hard not to pay attention to her.

Mr Robinson, Do you see an opening for a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie candidacy as a white knight late in the primaries or even at the convention? Do you think either could beat Pres. Obama?

At the moment, there are a lot of people in the GOP who sound as if they'd give the nomination to Bush or Christie even if another canidate had already been chosen and there was just a week left before the convention. Whether either could beat President Obama would depend on a lot of factors. I'm not sure that Jeb Bush has decided that he ever wants to get into the family business. As for Christie, he may be calculating that he'll get only one shot as the party's nominee and that 2016, when there will be no incumbent, looks better than 2012.

A reader posted this comment: "Governor Palin overshadowed President Obama this weekend. The Washington Post (not a Tea Party newspaper) devoted much more coverage to Palin than Obama." Of course, President Obama was in Joplin. As a southwest Missourian and former Joplin resident, I confess I spent far less time with the Post than I did with local coverage. What struck me most about the Post's was not the stories themselves but the degree to which they were eclipsed by nasty reader comments. For every expression of sympathy for the people in Joplin, there were scores of remarks about the president's trip to Europe and the cost of Mrs.Obama's dress. Many said the president should have cut his European tour short. Yet even Senator Roy Blunt said: "I have plenty of things to disagree with the president on, and this doesn't need to be one of them. I wouldn't have cut it short if I was him." (I might add that he response to the President in this reddest part of the state was overwhelmingly positive, even exuberant.)

Thanks for the report. "Reality" inside the D.C. echo chamber often has nothing to do with reality in the real world.

Mr. Robinson: In the extremely unlikely event we see both Palin and Bachman in the Republican primaries, do you think each will honor Reagan's Eleventh Commandment and refrain from attacking her female opponent?

As I wrote in the column, I think they'll be compared to each other -- and pitted against each other -- in a manner that's flat-out sexist. I see them as very different. Palin, I think, is motivated by ego and narcissism. She's more like Trump, or perhaps like the attention-deficit-disordered twin who somehow has taken the place of Newt Gingrich. Bachmann, I think, is fundamentally motivated by ideology -- she's more a Pawlenty than a Palin. (As Alaska governor, Palin evinced no particular ideology.) To answer your question, finally, no way they would refrain from attacking each other. 

How is the "intoxication that adoring crowds often induce" not applicable to the campaign and election of Obama?

Not at all. I'm sure that President Obama felt that same intoxication. The thing is, he won. Betcha Palin won't.

All the sturm and drang about his FY2012 budget and the thousands and thousands of trees sacrificed to print it resulted in what -- not one vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate for it last week? And this week, he gets his wish with a vote on his desire for a clean debt increase? Why does he waste our time and money with a budget that's DOA even with his party and stupid requests? And, please, don't blame Boehner for the vote on Obama's call for a clean debt increase. After all, Boehner is just giving Obama what he said he wanted. (If he didn't want it, he shouldn't have said so, repeatedly).

Did I miss something? I haven't heard President Obama complain about either of those votes. I've heard House Democrats complain, because they believe Republicans are trying to put them in political difficulty. Just as I heard Senate Republicans claim about having been forced to vote on the Ryan budget, including the part that converts Medicare into a voucher program. 

Hi Eugene -- thanks for taking questions today for the excellent column on Sarah Palin, even though I rather enjoyed the brief respite from nonstop coverage of her after she self-destructed (even if briefly) following her comments about the Arizona shootings. As for Cain, can he really get some traction here, or is the field pretty much set?

Herman Cain is definitely the surprise, thus far, of the young campaign season. He is developing a following. Is it enough to compete with better-known, better-funded candidates like Romney? I doubt it, but we'll have to see. 

I wrote a blog about how Sarah Palin has no one to blame but herself for her image as a lightweight. She had over 2 years (post VP run) to change her image to one that's more intellectually substantial, but she didn't. Yet she blames MSM for her printing things that she has said which showed her lack of knowledge/understanding of the issues. I don't despise Sarah Palin though as A Democrat I'm almost expected to. What I don't like about her is that she is intellectually and politically lazy and seems to be okay with that. Your thoughts?

I couldn't agree more. She has had time to acquire and display more substance, and she hasn't done it. She's successful as a political celebrity, though, and maybe that's what she wants to remain.

Gene, a lot of pundits want to compare the 2012 election to 1994 where Bill Clinton emerged out of a pack of seven dwarves and won the presidency. Instead of this view which clearly favors the GOP, what about the opposite, what if it's 1984 and the GOP nominates a respectable, formidable candidate that doesn't inspire (a la Mondale) and gets crushed.

I believe the the 1984 scenario is more likely than 1992. 

Do you think it is possible that she is actually positioning herself for an ARIZONA U.S. Seante seat versus a White House run?

Well, she did just reportedly buy a nice house in Scottsdale. But if that's Palin's goal, she needs to spending less time at Rolling Thunder and in New Hampshire, and more time in Phoenix and Tucson.

Sarah is making a pile of money being a political celebrity, and that's really all she is. She has to keep her name in front of the people who worship her, or she fades away. I'm convinced the various media - other than that which panders specifically to the right - find her to be a continuous man bites dog story. You make money complaining about her, or laughing at her, she makes money from her fans when you do it. It's a win-win situation for both you and Sarah. This is why we have to put up with her endless noise. I'm curious if any of you will admit that?

Sarah Palin doesn't "make money" for newspapers, magazines or television networks. She doesn't boost circulation, newsstand sales or viewership. (By contrast, Princess Diana reliably did -- if you put her on the cover of a magazine, newsstand sales went up.) I know of only one thing that would definitely boost single-copy sales of The Post, thus making money for us: Put a story about the Washington Redskins on the front page, above the fold, every day of the year. Seriously. You may believe we're right or wrong, but we -- and others -- cover Palin because we believe shee needs to be covered.

Here's a question from someone who loves your commentary, both in the Post and on Morning Joe. Last week Tim Pawlenty unleashed a tweet accusing our President of being on a "pub crawl" through Europe and igniring our problems at home. as a fellow Irishman, this seemed to be an offensive ethnic stereo type about yet another "drunken Irishman". Do you think the President can exploit that slur with Irihs voters if Pawlenty ends up with the nomination? Don Mooney, cincinnati, OH

Perhaps. I thought it was one of several seriously false notes that Pawlenty sounded in his attempt to be tougher-than-thou.

Do you think Palin benefitted from her presence at the Rolling Thunder event? I say no. I am a Viet Nam era vet and a Biker. Her presence seemed to me to be a silly stunt at a serious protest for veterans issues. She turned me off and I believe she turned off a lot of others like me because she made it about her not about the Vet's issues.

It's clear that a lot of participants, and at least some of the organizers, resented her appearance. Opinion seems to have been mixed.

But there's no guarantee there will be a credible candidate. I will not call Romney credible because he's the least ridiculous. They currently have no credible candidate and if no one else joins the race, no credible candidate will emerge because none can. Is it possible to win the Presidency with a non-credible candidate? Yes. It's been done before (W.H. Harrison, Harding). Is it good for the nation? So far, no.

I could be wrong, but I thought Mitt Romney would have been the GOP's best hope in 2008 and I think he'd be the party's most formidable candidate in 2012. But will he ever get the nomination, despite his front-running status? Remember that he spent a ton of money in '08, and was beaten not only by McCain but by Huckabee, too.

As Democrats and seniors, we are ashamed by our party's conduct (or really lack thereof) on Medicare. Our party blames the Republicans for "wanting to end Medicare as we know it." Duh! Unless we end it as we know it, it will end us. We are appalled at the lack of participation from our party in the necessity of wholesale reform of Medicare and Medicaid. We are insulted by the mediscare tactics of our party. If we want anything for our kids, we need to fix things now. And, Eugene, you aid and abet those tactics. Shame on you, too.

I don't accept your admonishment. There are ways to fix Medicare without turning it into a voucher program. I respect your point of view, but it's obvious that a whole lot of Democrats -- and, from what we say in the NY special election, quite a few Republicans -- who disagree. There is no shame in declining to drink Paul Ryan's Kool-aid.

Isn't it likely that Christie with his diminishing popularity in NJ will be out of a job by 2016? Don't the parties usually shy away from candidates who have lost elections as being "losers"?

Yep. And that has to be a factor in Christie's calculation. If he can get reelected, then why not wait four years? But if it looks like he may go down, he could figure it's now or never -- and roll the dice.

Pawlenty really thinks Obama should have taken "more decisive action" in Libya? What action? I doubt the voters have an opinion one way or the other...but they sure would if we committed major numbers with resulting casualties...Obama turned it over to NATO, which I think was about right, plus he is riding high with voters on foreign affairs with the killing of OBL...and Pawlenty really wants to talk about Libya?

Not a good way to get traction, in my view. I can understand why the GOP would look for some way to pin a soft-on-national-security label on Obama despite the killing of bin Laden. But "we should have another big, messy war in the Middle East" is definitely not the line to take.

Sir, Andrew Sullivan is blogging today that Ms. Palin's current tour has the purpose of testing an alternative campaigning methodology for a presidential run. The idea is to avoid traditional media and use low cost / high tech methods to reach voters. Do you think such an alternative approach could work? Could she even sidestep debates and 'go rogue'?

It would be an interesting experiment, but I'm at a loss to see how Palin could make it work. Her problem is that her polling numbers in the nomination contest are middling, and her numbers in a general election against Obama are worse. I dont think you can tweet your way to the White House.

So not that long ago Obama said he was out to protect the innocent civilians of Libya. A 13 year old was just mutilated and killed by Assad and cities are getting shelled. Why not take the tough stand against Syria. Except for the fact that Libya has oil (although mainly used by Europe) and Syria does not. People are getting killed in bunches and the best we can do is ask Assad to listen to the voice of his people?

I agree that we should take a tougher stand on Syria, but there are a few other factors to consider. A democratic, Westernizing Syria would be fabulous. A fractured, sectarian Syria would be disastrous for the whole region. The administration and allied nations are being cautious with Syria because (a) they seem to think that Assad will tough it out somehow, although I'm not so sure; and (b) they'd like to have confidence that what came after him wouldnt be a calamity. 

That said, I think the Arab Spring protests are still incredibly powerful, and Assad may well not be able to stay in power. And I think it will be better to line up on the right side of history.


I also think -- actually, I know -- that my time is up for today. Thanks, folks, for dropping by. See you again next week.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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