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Posted by on Feb 2, 2009 in Politics | 12 comments

Cults of Personality: Obama vs. Palin

While many in the GOP are engaged in serious discussions of the Party’s path out of the wilderness, others seem to be doubling down on bets which have previously failed to pay off. Eric Kleefeld of Talking Points Memo discusses the curious results of a recent poll in which a majority of Republicans seem to feel that the party needs to be more like Sarah Palin.

A new Rasmussen poll further demonstrates that the GOP could be in for a long stretch in the wilderness: A majority of GOP voters now say that the party should be more like Sarah Palin.

As I’ve previously noted, poll data like this could indicate that the Republican Party is getting ready to relive the classic cycle of ruling parties who get turned out of power in a landslide: With the party base itself shrunk down, the people who are still around are the most hard-line members, and are really the least fit people to fix the situation.

I can’t agree with the author across the board here because there is a definitely valid opinion in GOP circles that the Party has paved its own way into the wilderness precisely because they abandoned their thrifty, fiscal conservative ways. By spending like Democrats during the Bush years, the “hard-line members” Kleefeld describes were widely turned off by their own party. What I find more puzzling in this survey is not the adherence to time tested political philosophies, but the person in whom the base is placing their trust and hopes.

To me, Sarah Palin offers a similar but flawed parallel to the Democrats’ experiment with then candidate Barack Obama. The current president was referred to by skeptical critics – including yours truly – as a bit of an empty suit. His lack of any serious resume entries or legislative accomplishments painted a picture of a hopeful and energetic contender with little proof to be found in his pudding. However, Obama developed a cult of personality among his followers which proved unstoppable because of the high quality of glitz and glam layered over the thin foundation. He was widely (and likely correctly) perceived as a highly intelligent person, and few could doubt his masterful oratory skills. He was also, obviously, a hugely powerful symbol because of his race and upbringing. This combination, along with his native skills as a politician, created a winning formula for the Democrats.

Sarah Palin is, in many ways, a portrait in contrast to Obama layered on top of some striking similarities in their base construction. Like Obama, Palin came to us with precious few professional accomplishments. As I pointed out in a post election wrap-up at Pajamas Media, there were also more questions than compliments arising from her time in office. But unlike Obama, there was no blinding patina of impressive mannerisms to caulk over the flaws and cracks. Every media appearance piled on impressions of a person with suspect intellect and a hot temper combined with questionable judgment. While her aw shucks attitude and platitudes about how, “Gee, isn’t America just swell?” were big sellers with the base, they did little to build an image of someone ready to lead the free world. Likable? No question about it. Ready to face down our nation’s enemies? Not so much.

A cult of personality has surely grown around the Alaska governor rivaling the passion felt by Obama’s supporters. But the key difference they should remember was already articulated by the new Commander in Chief. He won. A key point about Palin’s efforts should be that she … well… didn’t. If I’m to agree with Eric Kleefeld about anything, it is that the GOP may be setting themselves up for a far longer stint in the wilderness unless they can come up with a better cult fixation.