It is one of the most cherished illusions of the left that conviction politicians of the right are stupid: not just wrong, but actually obtuse. The consequences of such prejudice are obvious: colossal underestimation, leading to blind arrogance, and thus electoral defeat.
Margaret Thatcher – "that stupid woman" – was a great (and grateful) beneficiary of this collective conceit of the British left ; in the United States it was even truer of the career of Ronald Reagan – who also happened to be the most popular American politician of the post-war era.
How, with his simple faith, apparently eternal optimism and starry-eyed reverence for the American flag could Ronald Reagan be anything other than "an amiable dunce"? Only a simple idiot would, as President, dare to denounce the Soviet Union "an evil empire", surely? How could anyone except a man still thinking that he was on a film set possibly say "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall"? Yet when the Berlin Wall was duly dismantled, Reagan's political opponents – who included the entire European social democratic movement – could not bear to contemplate the fact that this ex-Hollywood actor had understood the inherent rottenness of socialist economics far more profoundly than they.
It was partly with such thoughts in mind that a week ago this column warned readers not to make the mistake of underestimating Sarah Palin; but sure enough, almost every opinion piece published in the run-up to her speech at the Republican convention painted her as some sort of inbreeding hick out of Deliverance, who would force an embarrassed John McCain to remove her from the ticket before too much damage was done.
To be fair, this was by no means just the opinion of the conventional left. In the Spectator, Rod Liddle dismissed Palin as a " backwoods Britney Spears manqué", and went on to bemoan the fact that he had six months earlier, "put a pony on McCain to become president". Actually, Rod's bet now looks a lot better than it did when he placed it. Before the Republican convention and the arrival of Palin on the scene, McCain was lagging Barack Obama by 7 points, according to Gallup. The same polling organisation reported yesterday that the McCain-Palin ticket now has a lead of 4 points among registered voters, and a lead of 54 to 44 among "those seen as most likely to vote". Obviously, such polls are, as ever, no more than a snapshot of intentions at a particular moment. Governor Palin could yet reveal herself as the Bible-bashing bimbo of her critics' imagination, but I very much doubt that she will. Leave aside the complete absence of any notable academic qualifications on her CV – although can you imagine a public figure on the left, such as, for example, Alan Johnson in this country, being ridiculed for the same reason? The real point is that Sarah Palin is a politician – as opposed to a thinker-of near genius.
Yes, the Democrats are correct in protesting that she was in favour of various pork barrel projects in Alaska "before she was against them". What marks her out, however, is that she realised long before her colleagues that the public would tolerate no more of this petty corruption – and she destroyed her more senior Republican rivals in Alaska one by one, simply by exposing their venality. That took courage – as well as ruthlessness and opportunism.
Observe too, the shrewdness with which Palin has played her hand over the past year. Last September, she declared that the Democrats were to be envied in having a choice between Hillary Clinton and Obama: "When you talk about the Republican Party needing appealing candidates, darn right they do! The Democrats, whether you like them or not, there is some dynamic there, and it's something the Republicans have lacked for some time."
When McCain's chances of gaining the Republican nomination were being written off, Palin still wouldn't endorse either of the more socially conservative and therefore supposedly more congenial candidates, Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee – despite their appeals for her support. She demonstrated the crucial ability of the natural politician not to show her hand.
This poker-player's skill (something she shares with Barack Obama) is seen most clearly in Palin's dealings with big oil as Governor of Alaska. When she took on the job she discovered that her predecessor had committed the state to investing $4bn in a pipeline to export Alaskan gas to the lower 48 states. The pipeline's putative operators, Exxon, BP and Conoco, had insisted that they could not finance the project without this subsidy. Palin summarily told them that she would put the project out to tender, unless they reduced their call on the taxpayer to $500m. The American oil companies said she would not get any other offers. So Palin went off to Canada to find another bidder. Result: BP and Conoco are now building a pipeline with no subsidy at all, thus saving the Alaskan state budget billions of dollars. Obviously, the rise in gas prices greatly strengthened Palin's negotiating hand – but this was still the first time that a Governor of Alaska had shown a willingness to take on Big Oil at its own game of high-stakes poker.
The sheer size of these numbers should be born in mind whenever you read articles mocking Palin for her irrelevance as governor of a state with "only" 670,000 or so inhabitants – although the people who ridicule Alaska's lonely demographics seem at the same time extremely uncomfortable with the Palin family's energetic efforts to boost the population.
The underestimation of Sarah Palin does not just rest on the left's traditional inability to take seriously anyone who mentions God in public. Men of all political persuasions and none (and some women, too) seem to find it difficult to understand that a "babe" could also be highly intelligent. Some American television comedians have even taken to referring to Sarah Palin as "the stewardess". Boy, have they got it – and her – wrong.
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