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THESE ARE A FEW OF THE CRAZIEST THINGS! Republicans say the darnedest things! They do so by dint of their narratives: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2008

AN EXAMPLE: Some readers disagreed with our assessment of Michael Gerson’s Friday column (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/12/08). Have liberals been mocking Palin’s religion? One e-mailer put it this way. His message line asked a question: “Which liberals, exactly, are attacking Plain’s religion?”

E-MAIL (9/12/08):You accept without criticism Michael Gerson's assertion that “liberal intellectuals and pundits express their disdain for the religious values and motivations of the poor and middle class.” You are normally pretty hard on writers who make statements like this without naming a single example. And yet, here you approvingly quote Gerson, who lists no examples at all. You might want to read Steve Benen's takedown of Gerson's piece.

It doesn't help when liberals approvingly push right-wing scripts, as you know better than anyone. Liberals are not attacking Palin's religion or anyone's religion for that matter. Sure, there may be some media elite types who scoff at the religion of the little people, but since when is Charlie Gibson a liberal or a Democrat? This kind of thing is beneath you.

On this one, we pretty much disagree with this mailer, and with Benen, whose site we strongly recommend. With great frustration, we thought the mocking was fairly widespread this past week. We think this tends to be dumb on the merits—and we think that it’s a way libs and Dems tend to lose elections.

Liberal aren’t attacking Palin’s religion? In this past week, the problem started on Monday’s Countdown. As readers will know, we got off the Olbermann train long ago—at least as early as April 2007. That said, we thought his performance on Monday night was exactly what Gerson was referencing.

Uh-oh. It started like this:

OLBERMANN (9/8/08): Perhaps the fate of the McCain/Palin campaign lies in the hand of a power much greater than America’s constitutionally designated democracy. In fact, your votes may not matter at all. Your prayers, however—that’s a whole different ball of wax. In our number-one story on the Countdown, Sarah Palin, messenger and messiah.

For those who may be slow on the uptake, we’re already lightly mocking Palin’s religion at this point. But soon, the mockery was rather direct. Inaccurately speaking of Palin’s current church (which is not Pentecostal), Olbermann said, “They speak in tongues—in other words, in words or sounds neither they or anybody else understand, kind of like Fox News.” Soon, Olbermann was referring to Palin as "Elmer Gantry" and "Aimee Semple McHockey Mom" (after Aimee Semple McPherson, the famous 1920s evangelist). Then, speaking with Rachel Maddow, he asked a question about the tapes which show Palin in a recent appearance at her former church:

OLBERMANN: Which group is larger, do you think? Do we have any idea? Those who will look at those tapes, whose eyes will then roll back in their heads and in tongues they will say, “I like this woman or this candidate?” Or Americans who will then shout a three-word question, beginning with, “What the—?”

Readers may sympathize with that presentation; we think it’s dumb on the merits, and very bad politics. But even Maddow, who tried to be more politic, pushed the line about Palin’s religion this night. (Example: She plainly suggested that Palin said “that God is directing troop movements in Fallujah” in the speech she gave on that tape. Sorry—she just didn’t say that.) At any rate, Olbermann soon offered the Standard Disclaimer, right in the midst of the clowning:

OLBERMANN: Isn't it safe to say—and I mean absolutely no disrespect to the belief in God; in fact, it`s quite to the contrary. Some of these things that are addressed to her deity, doesn’t he, she or it have better things to do?

MADDOW: And if God really is working on this stuff, wouldn’t God be better at it than God has apparently been? If God prefers Sarah Palin’s specific Alaskan pipeline idea, why hasn’t construction started? You’d think that God could just like zip, zip, you know.

We were in eighth grade once ourselves. But even judged on the junior high level, that’s a sad display of skeptical “reasoning”—and yes, it constitutes mockery of Palin’s religion, by our two best-known liberal/progressive TV pundits.

By the way: Who would ever have thought that Olbermann meant any disrespect?

In our view, we don’t know which was worse: The spectacular stupidity of that last exchange, or the bad politics involved in such public discussions. But however you judge the merits of that exchange, we’d have to say it’s the sort of thing Gerson was talking about.

To all appearances, some liberals agree with the viewpoint so strongly that they can’t hear such discussions as mockery. But that’s what Gerson was talking about—and for ourselves, we tend to see this as very bad politics for Dems. (Others may disagree with that assessment.) Here at THE HOWLER, we’re not religious ourselves, but we’ve heard that most voters are—and tens of millions of voters do pray for things, on a regular basis. The clowning in that last exchange thus targets the religious practice of many voters, not just that of Palin. By the way: Why is speaking in tongues (which isn’t practiced at Palin’s current church) intrinsically stranger than taking Communion? Or that’s right! We almost forgot! Because people we know do the latter!

There are good questions to ask about Palin’s religion—about the role her religious beliefs may play in her public life. But we thought Olbermann and Maddow were both remarkably bad Monday night. (We expect more smarts from Maddow, though we’re begun wondering why.) As the week progressed, others seemed to stand in line, awaiting their chance to clown in this area. By Thursday night, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) was apologizing on Hardball for comparing Palin to Pontius Pilate. Helpful!

A final irony: Six years ago, when she started running for statewide office, Palin left her previous church—the less conventional church, the one where some people speak in tongues. Did she quit to ease her political path? We have no idea. But if Obama had quit a certain church at that time, he might still be ahead in the polls. As humans, we love to believe that the other tribe’s dumb. In this case, the other tribe made the savvier choice.

Progressive volunteerism: Olbermann also mocked Palin that night as someone McCain found at Schwab’s, where Lana Turner was allegedly discovered. As we noted at the time, there’s a certain type of man who just can’t stop mocking women:

OLBERMANN (9/8/08): He’s fought off this, you know—we found somebody at Schwab’s Drugstore in Hollywood and give her a screen test and now she’s Liza Minnelli and a star is born and we’re making her the vice president of the United States or at least the candidate on the ticket.

On the merits, you may be sympathetic with that—just as you may have sympathized with Olbermann’s gender-trashing of Clinton. Here’s our question for Olbermann, though: Why not just call the RNC and volunteer to drive folks to the polls?

Special report: By dint of their narratives!

PART 1—THE CRAZIEST THINGS: We agree with the headline on Bob Herbert’s column. “She’s Not Ready,” the headline proclaims, speaking of Sarah Palin. For the most part, we thought Palin’s performance with Charles Gibson was woeful—on balance, simply inadequate. We’re inclined to err on the side of inclusion when it comes to questions of readiness. But no: In our view, Palin shouldn’t be running for vice president, for the reason that headline defines.

(Question: Would short-listers Pawlenty or Kaine have been “ready?” Such matters are hard to define.)

We tend to agree with something else Herbert wrote, though this involves some crystal ball-gazing. As Herbert says, Democrats would have a very hard time staging a moment like this. There really is “a profound double standard” at work in modern American politics, just as Herbert writes. But then, this “profound double standard” has been at work in this realm for a very long time:

HERBERT (9/13/08): To burnish the foreign policy credentials of a vice presidential candidate who never even had a passport until last year, the Republicans have been touting Alaska’s proximity to Russia. (Imagine the derisive laughter in conservative circles if the Democrats had tried such nonsense.) So Mr. Gibson asked Ms. Palin, “What insight into Russian actions, particularly in the last couple of weeks, does the proximity of the state give you?”

She said, “They’re our next-door neighbors. And you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska. From an island in Alaska.”

[...]

John McCain, who is shameless about promoting himself as America’s ultimate patriot, put the best interests of the nation aside in making his incredibly reckless choice of a running mate. But there is a profound double standard in this country. The likes of John McCain and George W. Bush can do the craziest, most irresponsible things imaginable, and it only seems to help them politically.

We agree. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic nominee getting away with sheer nonsense like this. There really is—and really has been—a “profound double standard” shaping our electoral politics over the past many years. In fact, there has been a whole set of such standards; we’ve been writing about these standards forever. But uh-oh! We’re not sure that Herbert and his colleagues understand these standards. And we’re not sure he knows where they came from.

Kids say the darnedest things, a famous TV host used to say. Today, it tends to be the GOP which can do, and say, the craziest things. In the past two weeks, McCain has campaigned in the darnedest ways—and much of this conduct has involved Palin. In the process, he has passed Obama in the polls. Truth? If we were forced to bet today, we’d have to bet that he’d win.

Republicans say the craziest things—and a double standard permits it. But in our view, Herbert, like many liberal pundits, seems clueless about the way this game works. And he seems clueless about the role his cohort has played in producing this problem. In the past few weeks, McCain has been winning by dint of the GOP’s narratives, which liberal pundits helped put into place.

Republicans say the darnedest things? In Part 2, let’s Name those narratives! After all, those narratives allow this nonsense to happen. While we’re at it, let’s recall where these powerful narratives came from.

MONDAY—PART 2: The narratives four.