Is Sarah Palin smarter than Barack Obama?

Why the Democrats keep getting whipped by the GOP in the rhetoric wars

By Roger Shuler

Published May 27, 2010 7:28PM (EDT)

It pains me to even write the words in the headline above. On almost every level, the question plainly is absurd. But on one level -- that of street-fighting politics -- I suspect it is a legitimate question.

In fact, a recent quote from Sarah Palin indicates that, when it comes to street-fighting politics, she might be smarter than Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and just about all major Democrats of recent vintage.

In Time magazine's recent special issue about "The 100 Most Influential People in the World," Palin was included on the select list. I would be the first to say that that is pretty sad. But most revealing is what Palin wrote about another honoree, Glenn Beck. (That Beck made the list is also pretty sad.)

Consider this nugget from Palin's essay about Beck:

Glenn, 46, tackles topics other news shows would regard as arcane. Consider his desire to teach Americans about the history of the progressive movement: He's doing to progressives what Ronald Reagan did to liberals -- explaining that it's a damaged brand.

Hmmm, Palin admires Beck because he helps explain that progressivism is a "damaged brand." Sadly, that kind of attack-dog mindset is what modern political discourse is all about. Beck gets it. So does Palin.

Obama, unfortunately, does not.

And get this: Beck and Palin are not dealing in truth -- and they don't care. Progressivism is far from a "damaged brand." It is largely responsible for much of the progress -- Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, food safety, civil rights, etc. -- America has made over the past 100 years. In fact, many progressive programs have become so popular and successful that huge numbers of Americans take them for granted.

Meanwhile, conservatism really is a "damaged brand." But Democrats time and again have proven incapable of sending that message home.

Over the past 80 or so years, Democratic presidents repeatedly have had to clean up messes left by conservatives -- Franklin Roosevelt following Coolidge and Hoover, Jimmy Carter following Nixon, Bill Clinton following Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and now Obama following George W. Bush.

Essentially, a Democrat cannot get elected in modern American unless a Republican has screwed things up so badly that people become desperate to put an adult in charge. Two of the most qualified Democrats in modern times -- Al Gore and John Kerry -- failed to capture the White House. Why? Because Republican had not yet screwed things up enough to allow a Democrat to be elected.

Our three most recent Democratic presidents -- Carter, Clinton, and Obama -- have each failed to explain to the American people why conservatism truly is a damaged brand. And why is it damaged? Because of rampant incompetence and corruption.

Nixon had Watergate. Reagan and the first Bush had Iran-Contra and the savings and loan scandals. The second Bush had Iraq, Afghanistan, torture, political prosecutions, the mortgage crisis, an imploding economy... well, you get the idea.

Democrats consistently fail to show the American people how modern conservatism results in disastrous governance. Carter failed, Clinton failed, and Obama is on his way to failing.

The single best thing Obama could do for his country is to revisit the past eight years and expose the incompetence and corruption that was at the heart of the Bush II administration. Obama needs to explain why he inherited a God awful mess and how it has hamstrung him -- and our country.

He also should lead the effort to hold Bush criminals accountable. (Actually, Obama does not need to be "leading" that effort. He's got other things to do, cleaning up after Bush -- and trying to prevent environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But he should encourage Eric Holder, John Conyers, and others to lead the charge.)

Not only would this be good for America, it would be good for the Republican Party. It would force the GOP to get rid of its wackos and marauders and get back to being a functional organization again. America needs a rational and competent Republican Party. It doesn't have one now.

With so much to gain from exposing modern conservatism, what has Obama said? He wants to look "forward, not backwards." Once again, a Democrat is going to let Republicans off the hook.

And that means the damaged conservative brand will remain in place, contributing greatly to American decline.

Sarah Palin might be hopelessly misguided. But she does understand one thing: In a world of sound bites and ADD, it's critical to attack the other guy's soft underbelly when you have the opportunity. Conservatives do it, even though progressives don't have a legit soft underbelly.

Conservatism has a massive underbelly, one that is wide, soft, and ready to be smacked. But progressives always seem to pull their punches.

Obama, for example, does not appear to understand how to attack the other guy, in an appropriate fashion -- in a way that actually would educate Americans and make our two-party system stronger.

Democrats must show that conservatism is the truly damaged brand. But Obama doesn't seem to get it. And I'm starting to think no Democrat ever will.

Roger Shuler

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Barack Obama Democratic Party Glenn Beck Sarah Palin