First of all, I’d like to apologize for how long it took us to get the Department of Finally up and running. It’s been the first thing on our agenda since the inception of Combat! blog, but you know how it is, what with the Department of Planning, the Department of Eventually, the Department of Interrupting, the Department of Penultimate, and the Department of Dragging Out Jokes That Only One of Us Finds Amusing all clamoring for our attention. Now that that’s taken care of: President Obama took advantage of the Combat! news blackout Friday to dismiss Sarah Palin’s criticism of his nuclear posture. “I really have no response. Because last I checked, Sarah Palin’s not much of an expert on nuclear issues,” the President told George Stephanopoulos, who immediately began hooting and running around in a circle while pawing at the air before sitting down, straightening his tie, taking a deep breath and then shouting “Oh, snap!” directly into the ear of Michelle Malkin. “If the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff are comfortable with it,” Obama continued, “I’m probably going to take my advice from them and not from Sarah Palin.”
During the 2008 campaign, this was exactly the kind of thing that every pundit in the country agreed he must never do. The concern that middle America would perceive candidate Obama as overly rational or even condescending haunted Democratic strategists from the beginning—to say nothing of the part it played in making Sarah Palin famous in the first place. The popular wisdom, inherited from Bush vs. Kerry in 2004, was that the American people wanted a president they could relate to, whatever that means, and not some droning professor describing policy options in complete sentences. Consider Joe Biden’s restraint during the vice presidential debate, the run-up to which was dominated by Democratic fretting that he would insult her. Or consider the rhetorical strategies implicit in the Democrats’ presentation of their energy policy—we must invest in green technologies to stimulate growth in the energy sector while simultaneously reducing emissions—compared to the Republicans: drill, baby, drill! In 2008, Republican energy policy contained an exclamation point. Everyone agreed that this was the superior approach.
Everyone, as it turns out, was wrong. On Friday, President Obama implied that Sarah Palin is too stupid to be taken seriously, and his stock seems not to have suffered for it. That’s totally counterintuitive if you accept the narrative that Sarah Palin is popular precisely because of her down-home, aw-shucks, I-have-no-idea-what-the-fuck-a-Punnett-Square is attitude. Middle America is supposed to love Sarah Palin because she’s authentic, and we all know that “authentic” is code for dumb. To hear the Huffington Post tell it, Sarah Palin’s charade continues because we look at her and see ourselves. Why, then, do we not see President Obama’s dismissal of her opinion as a dismissal of ourselves?
Two explanations seem plausible. The first is that Middle America, no matter how committed to good old-fashioned common sense when it comes to defining marriage and not giving free food to black kids, is pretty relieved not to have to make decisions about nuclear weapons. Presumably, there is a deployment strategy that maximizes readiness in south central Asia while discouraging Russia from positioning a high percentage of its arsenal in easily destabilized satellite states, and thank the sweet lord Christ that I don’t have to figure out what it is. Nuclear strategy—military tactics in general—is an area in which we are happy to let the supposedly resented elites make all the decisions for us, for the same reason that we don’t just pop the hood and start yanking out hoses when our car breaks down. Certain areas of inquiry entail consequences sufficient to make us admit that we don’t know anything.
I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, though. I think Obama can dismiss Sarah Palin without political consequences because Sarah Palin is not actually a political phenomenon. She’s a fad. Fans of Sarah Palin care about politics the way fans of Kenny G care about jazz. There the same people who went nuts for Beanie Babies and disco, and despite their ubiquity on comments sections and 24-hour news channels, there are not enough of them to seriously affect the fortunes of the United States of America. They’re just very loud. Like all the best contentions, this is one I make with no evidence whatsoever. You can’t conduct a poll in which the first questions is, “Do you support Sarah Palin?” and the second question is, “Are you a crank whose opinions don’t matter?” In my experience, however, there is a common element uniting all Sarah Palin supporters: they have no idea what they are talking about. Such people are excluded from functional democratic discourse, precisely because their rhetoric becomes less and less useful the deeper you get into actual governance. “Empower small businesses” may please Hannity, but it’s not going to get you anywhere with the Select Revenue Subcommittee.
Of course, if you’re appearing before that subcommittee because you are the duly elected US representative from Minnesota, the battle is lost on both sides. It’s not enough for us to publicly indulge the behavior of people like Palin while privately assuring ourselves that their opinions don’t matter. We have to call a stupid spade a stupid spade, and on Friday President Obama took a small step toward returning intellectual standards to our public discourse. There’s a term for that kind of behavior, and it’s “elitism.” Now that we’ve experimented with the unconditional embrace of populism for a 18 months, it might be time to start rehabilitating that word.