The Chutzpah of Palin

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Hey, everybody–I’m back from maternity leave. Anything happen while I was gone?

Sigh. I’ve been spending more time reading Pigeon books than political pages lately, so I may be a little rusty. But it took me a few minutes of watching Sarah Palin’s video message this morning to realize that it wasn’t an OnionTV production starring an uncannily good Palin impersonator.

While lashing out at the idea that her “lock and load” rhetoric could contribute to any act of violence, Palin decried “irresponsible statements” and insisted that “each individual is accountable for his [or her] actions.” She characterized critics of her as guilty of “a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn.” Again, I’m a bit slow here. But let me see if I understand this. Palin’s words are obviously just words and could never ever influence anyone’s actions. But the words of her critics are irresponsibly provocative and have the power “to incite hatred and violence”?

My head is hurting. And I really must be out of it because I actually thought she was kidding when she patiently explained that “when we ‘take up our arms,’ we’re talking about our vote.” Ah, yes. It’s hard to see how anyone could have thought otherwise. Palin may often talk about “the right to bear arms,” but when she exhorts people to “take up arms,” she obviously means they should lift up their arms to pull the lever in their voting booths.

Sarcasm aside, it really is hard to fathom why Palin felt the need to record and release this message right now. For God’s sake, most of the funerals for the victims in Tucson haven’t even taken place yet. Is this really the right time for an unapologetic defense of violent rhetoric? Why not hold off on the lashing out at her critics and casting herself as a victim for just a few more days?

I think there are two main explanations. One is that Palin simply can’t help it. You know that friend of yours for whom everything is always about them? Your dad is in the hospital and your cat just died and you lost your job, and yet she blows up at you because you forgot her birthday? Palin is that friend.

Noam Scheiber (aka, my husband) wrote a profile of Palin in the fall of 2008 that I’ll unapologetically quote from here because I still think it captures what drives her better than anything else I’ve read:

Palin, by contrast, may be the first conservative politician since Nixon to experience resentment so authentically. For her, it’s not so much a political tool as a motivating principle. A trip through Palin’s past reveals that almost every step of her career can be understood as a reaction to elitist condescension–much of it in her own mind.

Sarah Palin is never so impassioned as when the cause she’s defending is Sarah Palin. That’s what you see in the video. While I believe she genuinely feels grief for the families of the victims, for her this moment is about the unfair attacks she has sustained. The outrage isn’t feigned. She isn’t failing to make distinctions between criticizing her rhetoric and blaming her for the shooting. There is no distinction for her.

The second explanation for the timing of this video is that Palin and her advisers obviously understand that her career is on the line–whether that involves running for president or simply being a popular conservative figure who commands high speaking fees and tv contracts. Even if no one drew a connection between Palin’s target map or rhetoric and Jared Loughner’s violent actions, she would have to tone down her schtick, at least in the name of good taste.

The problem for Palin is that this is her brand. She’s Shoot-‘Em-Up Sarah. That’s what her fans love about her. She got them fired up on the campaign trail in 2008 by not just being willing to play the role of attack dog, but by so obviously relishing it. What does a de-fanged Palin sound like politically? I suspect even she doesn’t know.

That’s why what we heard today was a somewhat desperate attempt to make the case that extreme political rhetoric can be healthy and appropriate, that it has a valid, defensible place in our politics. You have to give her credit–it’s hard to think of a worse time to press that argument. But if she didn’t make the case, she’d have to change her tune. And that’s not an option for Palin.

UPDATE: I missed Sharron Angle’s similar comments yesterday: “The irresponsible assignment of blame to me, Sarah Palin or the TEA Party movement by commentators and elected officials puts all who gather to redress grievances in danger.” In all seriousness, I just don’t understand this. It’s perfectly fair to argue that there is no link between political rhetoric and the shooting in Tucson. But then you have to explain why statements denouncing violent imagery and metaphors could possibly put anyone in danger. You do not get to have it both ways. Am I missing something?