Matthew Continetti has a piece in this weekend’s Weekly Standard hailing Sarah Palin as the ideal leader of a new populist uprising. One obvious objection to his thesis: The populist Sarah is in fact one of the most unpopular figures in American life.
According to Gallup, 63% of Americans say they would never consider voting for her. By a margin of 62%-31% Americans rate Palin “unqualified” to serve as president – by far the worst score for any leading Republican.
In comparison, only 51% of Americans say they would never consider voting for Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee – and a plurality of Americans rate the two as “qualified”: 50-36 say Huckabee is qualified, 49-39 say Romney is qualified.
Palin supporters have constructed an alternative reality in which their heroine is wildly cheered by the American yeomanry, and despised only by a small coterie of sherry-drinking snobs. No contrary evidence, no matter how overwhelming and uncontradicted, can alter this view: not the collapse in Palin’s support in just 5 weeks in 2008, not the statistical studies that show her as the only vice presidential nominee in history to have hurt her ticket, not her rampant unpopularity with American women, not her own flinching from a second encounter with the Alaskan electorate.
In this regard, Continentti’s comparison of Palin to William Jennings Bryan begins to look not only apt, but ominous.
Like Palin, Bryan had some good ideas. He was right about free trade, and he was right too about the gold standard. (Even if his alternative would have been unworkable in its own way.) But he made himself so culturally obnoxious to the American majority that he dragged even his good ideas down to defeat with him. Everybody knows Bryan’s famous line about the “cross of gold.” Not so well remembered are the lines that killed his candidacy in 1896:
Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.
This was not the way to talk to a rapidly urbanizing nation.
Bryan ran for president three times. He lost every time, and by dwindling margins: 46.7% of the vote in 1896, 45.5% in 1900, and 43% in 1908. Yet not all was lost for him. After four consecutive defeats, the country finally did turn to the Democrats in 1912. Many of the important reforms Bryan had urged over his unsuccessful career were enacted into law. Of course in the interval, Bryan’s party had turned to a new leader: a former president of Princeton University and author of an outstanding work of political science.
The professor won what had eluded the preacher, in part because unlike the preacher, he did not look obviously unequal to the job.