Sarah Palin wasn’t responsible for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) last weekend — not directly, not indirectly. She’s not even responsible for the ugly rhetoric used by others on the right who try to turn ordinary policy debates into clashes between Americanism and socialism. She hasn’t tried very hard to curb the excesses of her allies, and that’s a serious failing, but it’s far from unique.
Still, the Arizona shootings and their aftermath will probably be remembered as the end of Palin’s chances of being taken seriously as a Republican presidential candidate. She had an opportunity to rise to an occasion, and she whiffed.
Palin’s viability as a presidential candidate had already been diminishing. The decline started with her abrupt resignation from her day job as governor of Alaska in 2009. Last year, one of massive success for conservative Republicans almost everywhere, she had the almost unique distinction among major GOP figures of seeing her standing plummet.
That was true long before the tragedy in Arizona revived a once minor controversy over Palin’s rhetoric in last year’s campaign, when she urged her followers to “reload” and produced a map of select Democratic congressional districts, including Giffords’, marked by cross-hairs.
In surveys of Republican voters, Palin still ranks as one of the four top choices for the 2012 presidential nomination, along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But the most important numbers aren’t going her way. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last month, 50% of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Palin; that’s huge. Only 20% said they had negative feelings toward Romney. A year earlier, Palin’s negative rating was 40%. Her principal accomplishment over the past year, it seems, has been to alienate more voters.
Republican officeholders, fundraisers and political strategists aren’t flocking to Palin’s side either.
“I don’t see it happening,” a top Republican fundraiser told me this week (though he asked for anonymity in case he turns out to be wrong). “I don’t think she intends to run. She’s not doing what she needs to do if she’s serious about running.
“If she does run, she’s going to be humbled,” he predicted. “She’s losing support among Republicans. I don’t think they see her as a president of the United States.”
That’s one reason so many other serious Republican politicians, at least 12 by last count, are thinking about running: They don’t think Palin stands in their way. The probable contestants include at least two, Huckabee and Gingrich, who would be vying for the same socially conservative and “tea party” voters who form the base of Palin’s support.
Palin had a chance with her statement on the Tucson tragedy to show voters she’s equal to the demands of the presidency. Instead, the eight-minute video she released Wednesday reflected her chosen role as lightning rod of the right. Rather than rise to the occasion, she continued the partisan slugfest.
Noting that heated rhetoric was nothing new in an America where politicians used to resort to dueling with pistols, she went on to defend vigorous disagreement. “If you don’t like a person’s vision for the country, you’re free to debate that vision. If you don’t like their ideas, you’re free to propose better ideas.”
It would have been good if she had stopped there. But then, with characteristic passion, she turned to what she knew would be her most memorable line: a charge that her critics are the ones guilty of fomenting violence.
“Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn,” she said. “That is reprehensible.”
By “blood libel,” Palin was referring, of course, to the charge that her own rhetoric had somehow increased the likelihood that a mentally disturbed young man would shoot people. And on the substance, she was right: There’s no evidence that her words — or anyone else’s —contributed to Saturday’s tragedy.
But her statement also confirmed something that should disqualify the former Alaska governor from ever seeking higher office: She has no sense of proportion.
A “blood libel” isn’t just a groundless charge that something sparked bloodshed. It is used primarily to refer to the monstrous anti-Semitic charge that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian infants for ritual use, a falsehood that provided a twisted justification for pogroms.
Palin was justified in accusing her critics of unfairness in using the tragedy as a talking point and in pointing a finger at her. But she went much further than that: She asserted that their argument “serves only to incite … violence.”
Consider that assertion for a moment: Palin says her words could not possibly have created a climate of violence, but claims her opponents’ words are certain to.
What was missing in her statement? Any acknowledgment, even implicit, that anyone on her own side had ever stepped over the line as well. Even her own aide, Rebecca Mansour, acknowledged implicitly last week that gun sights on a map weren’t a good idea. (Those weren’t gun sights, just “surveyors’ symbols,” she said — even though Palin herself once referred to them as “bull’s-eyes.”)
Doubtless there are conservatives who will thrill to Palin’s pugnacity. But voters in the center, where presidential elections are won, don’t like the idea of politics as a blood sport. They yearn for vision, stature, steadiness, a nod toward the ideal of bipartisan compromise and evidence of real competence — from conservative and liberal candidates alike.
Palin has given them none of those things. She’s making her mark as a leader of one faction, but only one. She’s a genuine cult figure, raising millions of dollars from donors, selling books and starring on television. But she’s not going to be her party’s presidential nominee.