Op-Ed: Huckabee And Palin Chose Celebrity

In the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat argues Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin embraced celebrity after losses in 2008, and thus can never become president. Douthat believes republicans need a leader who prefers "leadership to the pleasures of celebrity."

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page. Two former governors and prospective presidential candidates are currently crisscrossing the country on giant tour buses. They're selling books, signing autographs, drawing big crowds. In his column in the New York Times today, Ross Douthat argues that in 2008, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee were the only Republican politicians to inspire any genuine enthusiasm. But, they say - he says they suffered from the perception they weren't ready for the big job. And he goes on to argue that since the election, both opted for celebrity over substance. Well, we want to hear from conservative listeners today. Are Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee on the wrong path if they hope to be the president of the United Stares? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site too. That's at np.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Ross Douthat joins us now from the studio here in Washington. He's a columnist for the New York Times. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. ROSS DOUTHAT (Columnist, New York Times): Nice to be here, Neal. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And charisma, you would argue - well, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, both seem to have that in spades and it's, well, it's a nice thing for a politician to have. It sure helps getting elected.

Mr. DOUTHAT: It does. And, you know, part of the point of the column was that if you look back at the 2008 race, you know, 2008 was terrible year for the Republican Party overall. The party's brand was moribund, nobody liked George W. Bush. Nobody liked Mitt Romney, who was supposed to be the frontrunner. And in the end, it tuned out nobody really liked John McCain all that much either. But people did like Mike Huckabee who came out of nowhere to be a plausible contender for the nomination. And an awful lot of people liked Sarah Palin. An awful lot of people, excuse me, hated her as well.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: But, you know, a large chunk of the country got really excited about Sarah Palin in a way that they hadn't about John McCain. And, yeah, in politics, charisma matters.

CONAN: I was just going to say on the other side, a lot of people got pretty excited about�

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: �the man who did get elected president, Barack Obama.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right. And Obama is an example of how a politician can essentially harness the power of celebrity while also keeping one foot in the realm of wonky seriousness. You know, Obama is somebody - his celebrity is often a weakness for him. His weakest moment in the campaign was when he went to Germany and had the huge crowds acclaiming him and the McCain campaign was able to make fun of him, compare him to Paris Hilton and so on. So, Obama is always, sort of, walking that tight rope between, you know, being famous for being famous.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. DOUTHAT: And being famous because people take him seriously. But Palin and Huckabee haven't quite found a way to walk that tight rope yet, I think.

CONAN: And, indeed, you say they had choices to make after they - after last election. And Sarah Palin chose to resign as governor of the state of Alaska and write this book instead. And Governor Huckabee, he was already not governor, but has made his decision rather than run for another elective office or go to a think tank and produce position papers has chosen to host a talk show.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right. And, you know, in a sense, you can't really blame them from making those choices. I mean, I think that, you know, if I were a former politician given an opportunity to, you know, be surrounded by adoring fans and make a lot more money than you ever make on a government salary and have everybody talking about you the way everybody has been talking about Sarah Palin this week, you can certainly see the appeal of doing that instead of staying in the governor's mansion in Juneau and trying to, you know, push legislation through. But if you look at where Sarah Palin in particular was, coming out of the 2008 election, you know, she had approval ratings that were right around 45 percent of the country liked her, 45 percent of the country didn't like her. But what - where there was a large majority was of the people who said well, I don't think she's ready to be president.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: I don't think she's qualified. And if you're faced with those kinds of numbers, it's probably the wrong decision to give up the only elective office - the only statewide elective office you've ever held before even finishing out your first term. I just - I tend to think that that is - that's a decision more than any other decision that makes it very hard to imagine her ever becoming president.

CONAN: And then, Governor Huckabee did serve his time in office and well, was widely respected, as you point out, as a pragmatist not necessarily an ideologue when he ran his time. What about his decision? He's certainly in the public eye, and he did write a book - it's about Christmas, but he wrote a book.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Yeah. And listen, I mean, everybody likes Christmas, and there's a lot of - there are a lot of important things to be said about it. I mean, I think Huckabee is in a better position than Palin largely because he has a longer political track record than she does, and a longer successful political record than she does. So he can always draw on that.

The problem for Huckabee, though, was that, you know, in the Republican primaries, the biggest knock on him was that he seemed like a really charming guy who is maybe kind of a lightweight, maybe not a guy who had well-developed positions, especially on foreign policy, but also on domestic policy. You know, and people would say, oh, Mike Huckabee doesn't have an immigration plan, for instance. And then his campaign would run out and just sort of grab it off, you know, a pro-immigration restriction Web site and say, well, this is our plan. I mean, there wasn't like a highly substantial policy operation there. And I think that Huckabee could have done himself a world of good by, you know, doing something more substantive. I mean, his talk show is kind of, not a variety show, exactly, but it's sort of a mix. It's part political talk show, part �Oprah,� and it's a lot of fun and people like it. But I think that - I think in his case, though, you can imagine him still pivoting before he ends up running for president again, as I assume he will�

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: �and trying to remake himself as more of a substantive figure, whereas it seems more like Palin is sort of going all the way as a celebrity, one way or another.

CONAN: We're talking with Ross Douthat of the New York Times. �They Chose Celebrity� is the piece that was appearing in this morning's editions of the newspaper. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We want to hear from our conservative listeners today. Are Palin and Huckabee on the right path if they hope to be president?

Let's hear from Steve(ph). Steve, calling us from New York.

STEVE (Caller): How are you all doing?

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Hi.

STEVE: I'm an independent and therefore by definition possess both conservative and liberal views. And in terms of the two candidates, I think Huckabee is a more viable candidate. I don't know that - viable enough to be a successful nominee and elector. I think for whatever reasons, Ms. Palin just is more image than substance - and at some point there are some saying the current president is lacking of the same ills - that she has to produce something substantive. And I agree with you, quitting a job halfway through it, that's certainly not a very good beginning. I think there are other Republican candidates that would be more successful. But of the two you are talking about, I think Huckabee, by his own countenance, represents family values. He certainly does have a long way to go otherwise, though, I would agree.

CONAN: So Steve, right now, you would say if it was a choice between those two - and you would hope for some other choices, too - but you would opt for Mr. Huckabee?

STEVE: Well, I'm absolutely expecting other choices will be forthcoming. But of those two, Mr. Huckabee, without a doubt.

CONAN: And I think you're right there, too, that there's certainly going to be more choices. Steve, thanks very much.

STEVE: Certainly.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And there are substantive positions, you would say, Ross Douthat. You argue that there is a case to be made. That in the last years of the last Bush presidency, there was a case to be made for saying conservatives had run out of ideas - not so much anymore, and more than just we're not him.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right. I mean, I think this was a big knock on conservatism, still is, but especially over the past few years that, you know, conservatives had been the party of ideas for a long time and they'd enacted a lot of those ideas, you know, from welfare reform to the Reagan-era tax cuts to anti-crime policies and so on. And now they were out of ideas, moribund and it was liberalism's turn.

And, you know, I think that that was a fair critique late in the Bush era. I think it's less fair now. I think that you've seen a lot of, sort of, policy ferment from the people who should be generating policies, right, like economists, think-thank experts and so on. And most of it's been reactive. It's been driven in response to things Obama has proposed. So Obama proposes the stimulus and conservative economists have proposed alternatives. And the Democrats propose a health care plan and conservatives have proposed alternatives. But it is happening. And you could imagine a Republican Party or Republican candidate at this point that had a fairly credible domestic policy agenda across a number of fronts, from health care to regulatory reform, to the state of the economy and a jobs agenda and so on.

What you don't see though yet are Republican politicians. And I used Huckabee and Palin, but I don't just want to single them out. I think it's true across the board. You don't see that many Republican politicians who want to brand themselves as the candidate of new ideas. I mean, you have Newt Gingrich who always likes to brand himself as the candidate of new ideas, but he's been calling himself that for 15 years or so. And I'm not sure how many of his ideas are all that new.

But beyond Gingrich, you have a lot of Republican politicians who, I think, are being very, very cautious and don't want to go out on any kind of a limb in terms of policy proposals. And they'd rather just be sort of anti-Obama and saying I'm going to check the conservative boxes. And I think at some point - I think there's actually a real political opportunity here. If there are any Republican politicians listening to this show right now, I think if you want to make a name for yourself, you should become the policy guy. But, you know, that may just be a sort of Washington fantasy, that being a policy guy actually helps you win votes. That may not be true at all.

CONAN: Let's go next to Dave(ph). Dave with us from Denver.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. I'm not that enthusiastic about either one of them. Right now, my guy is Pawlenty, assuming he runs. I don't think either one of them�

CONAN: I think he is, yeah.

DAVE: Yeah. I don't think either one of them have enough experience. And the thing that I find absolutely fascinating about this conversation is probably the least experienced person to ever become president of the United States is the guy that's currently in office.

CONAN: Well, you could make an argument about that, but, yeah, you can certainly derive that argument.

DAVE: Yup. No question about it. He had very little experience, but he's got lot of charisma. And charisma doesn't do it for me.

CONAN: All right. Dave, so you wouldn't have voted for Ronald Reagan?

DAVE: Absolutely. I would have voted for Ronald Reagan because he had positions that I felt very good about.

CONAN: All right.

Mr. DOUTHAT: And Ronald - I mean�

CONAN: And two terms as governor of California.

Mr. DOUTHAT: He had two terms as governor of the nation's biggest state.

DAVE: Yeah. Absolutely, which is a heck of a lot more than the - we can say about Obama.

CONAN: All right. Dave, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

DAVE: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Ross Douthat of the New York Times. He is also the author of the grand - what's the, I'm sorry, the �Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.� And stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Gary(ph). Gary, with us from Columbus.

GARY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

GARY: How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

GARY: Just caught part of the program and someone called me and said that I should call in because in the last 72 hours I have literally been to two of Sarah Palin rallies, one to get to the signing of the book and the other because I wanted to go. And I'm a T-shirt printer and I went wearing the Palin-man outfit, so I've been dubbed recently as the Palin man. And I have a unique perspective in that I end up in the crowd talking to people. The outfit is like walking in as Santa Clause and people open up. People just are totally, totally drawn to Governor Palin's ability to touch your heart, to speak to the conservative issue just of life, feet on the ground, hardworking, you know, moral values, those sorts of things. And that's what draws her and that's what really is going to keep her. That's what propels her. And I believe that's what will keep her in the spotlight. And as I work this crowd - and I'm there for the whole thing. I drove from Columbus, Ohio, yesterday to Roanoke, Virginia, and they graciously let me be in my little Palin hat and T-shirt and�

CONAN: And describe that for us, if you would, Gary.

GARY: Oh, you want to hear it? Okay. The hat is embroidered, Palin man at the top, then 2012. Of course, I don't know if she's running or not.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

GARY: Who does? I don't even know if she knows. The T-shirt has a picture of her. It's digitally printed so at full color and across the top it says, drill baby drill, comma, and, and then down below it says run baby run�

CONAN: Uh-huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARY: �and it's done in a candidacy, you know, manner: stars, stripes, that sort of thing.

CONAN: Red, white and blue and bunting, that sort of thing?

GARY: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

CONAN: And when you see enthusiasm like that, Ross Douthat, you can't argue. She's certainly�

Mr. DOUTHAT: You can't argue with it, no. And this is what's fascinating. One of the earlier callers that talked about Obama, I mean, Palin's appeal is like Obama's appeal in the sense that it is an appeal driven by who she is more than anything in particular she says. I mean, what the caller was saying about how she embodies sort of family values, conservative values, a certain idea of what America is. And she embodies an idea and Obama embodies an idea. What Obama was able to do, though, was to take the 40 percent of America that deeply responded to him on a sort of visceral, identity-based level and add to that, you know, another 14 percent of the electorate and that was what made him president. And the challenge for Palin...

CONAN: That maybe this guy has got some interesting ideas, yeah.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Right. But the challenge for Palin is to - right - is to take her identity, but get people who aren't just voting for her because of who she is.

CONAN: Let's get Patrick(ph) on the line. Patrick, with us from Homerville in Ohio.

PATRICK (Caller): Yes. I'm a lifelong Republican, but the party's pretty much kicked me out. I'm a conservative because if you don't agree with the religious views then they don't really want you. And they've made that clear. And that's why I can't vote for either Palin or Huckabee.

CONAN: Interesting. John McCain, I think, checks all that boxes, but Senator McCain not noted for his strong religious views and he won the nomination last time around.

PATRICK: Right. But he tried to pick up the evangelicals which, you know, there's a lot of my buddies I served with - I'm a veteran - that refer to these guys as the American Taliban.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PATRICK: I don't want the religion shoved down my throat, and I don't want to be judged if I'm different than you - will get out of the party.

CONAN: Thanks very much for that, Patrick. Appreciate it. And Ross Douthat, there's no arguing that that is a substantial part of the Republican base.

Mr. DOUTHAT: It is. And again, both of the politicians we're talking about, both Palin and Huckabee, has a - they're strongly identified with evangelical religion. And again, that's part of their appeal but it's also part - one of the big hurdles. I mean, one of Huckabee's big problems in the primaries was he couldn't get non-evangelical Republicans to vote for him. They went for Romney or they went for McCain.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DOUTHAT: And so - and he couldn't get over that hurdle, in particular, he couldn't get Catholics who were a big part of both parties. He had a real tough time getting Catholic Republicans to vote for him. So that's - yeah, I mean, that's an issue for these candidates.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Ross Douthat. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. DOUTHAT: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Ross Douthat joined us on the Opinion Page. He's a columnist for the New York Times. And there's a link to his article, �They Chose Celebrity� on our Web site. That's at npr.org. He's also - the article of �Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.� This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: