Palin’s vs. Obama’s Economic Populism

Frank Rich’s piece about Sarah Palin in yesterday’s New York Times contains the beware-Palin’s-supposedly-naive-tactics warning we’ve seen a few times since her Tea Party hand job last week. But it also makes the relevant point that, despite a GOP end game that does nothing to help those hardest hit by recession, her populist message is resonating more than Obama’s right now. And GOP leaders who are perhaps more electable than her are adopting her populist template.

The Obama White House remains its own worst enemy. No sooner did Palin’s Tea Party speech end than we learned of the president’s tone-deaf interview expressing admiration for “very savvy businessmen” like Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs. With that single remark, Obama ingeniously identified himself with the most despised aspects of both Washington and Wall Street — the bailout and the bonuses. He still doesn’t understand that to most Americans, Blankfein is a savvy businessman only in the outrageous sense that he managed to grab his bonus some 17 months after the taxpayers had the good grace to save him from going out of business altogether.

Instead of praising bailed-out bankers, the president might have more profitably instructed his press secretary to drop the lame Palin jokes and dismantle the disinformation campaign her speech delivered to a national audience. Palin, unlike Obama, put herself on the side of the angels, railing against Wall Street’s bonuses and bailout, even though she and John McCain had supported TARP during the campaign. Palin also bragged that she had “joined with other conservative governors” in “rejecting some” stimulus dollars when in reality she rejected only a symbolic 3 percent of those dollars — soon to be overruled by the Alaskan Legislature, which took every last buck.

This disingenuousness is old hat for Palin, who hired lobbyists to pursue $27 million in earmarks while serving as mayor of the town of Wasilla (pop. 6,700) and loudly defended her state’s “bridge to nowhere” until her politically opportunistic flip-flop. What’s new is the extent to which her test-marketed dishonesty has now become the template for her peers in the G.O.P. “populist” putsch. Adopting her example — while unencumbered by her political baggage — the party is exploiting the Tea Party movement to rebrand itself as un-Washington while quietly conducting business as usual in the capital.