ST. PAUL, Minn. — Fishing permit violations. A blue-collar husband who racked up a DUI citation as a 22-year-old. An unmarried teenage daughter who is pregnant and a nasty child custody battle involving a family member.
All of this, to one degree or another, has surfaced in recent days as a result of efforts to discredit or undermine Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But these revelations may have the opposite effect: In one sense, they could reinforce how remarkably unremarkable she is.
So far — and it is hard to tell what the future may hold for Palin’s unexpected national candidacy — the travails of the Palin family probably seem awfully familiar to many average Americans. It is this averageness that makes her such a politically promising running mate for John McCain — and such a dangerous opponent for Democrats. Many voters will find it easy to identify with her family’s struggles — a significant advantage in an election where the voting calculus is so unusually and intensely personal.
Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden hardly come from blue-blood backgrounds; Biden, now famously, is an Irish-Catholic son of Scranton, Pa., and Obama was raised by a single mother. But the fact that Palin, even as a governor, remains grounded in a recognizable American lifestyle — warts and all — has not gone unnoticed among Republicans, as the first wave of opposition research has been unloaded on her.
“Authenticity is the most important characteristic for someone seeking public office,” said Nick Ayers, executive director of the Republican Governors Association. “Any news that comes out about her is not going to hurt her because it reinforces the point that she is authentically one of us.”
Unlike running mates from both parties, dating back decades, the Palin family isn't part of the moneyed elite or the governing class. Neither wife nor husband is the scion of a well-connected family. Sarah Palin attended a state school, and her brushes with the law are of the same nettlesome kind that drive recreational fishermen crazy in all 50 states.
“Look at the nature of this: small-town mayor, marrying the high school sweetheart — these are the kinds of things you’d see in a Budweiser commercial as opposed to an Amstel Light commercial,” said South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. “She wasn’t born of political pedigree, and people like that.”
Even the governor’s own Trooper-gate scandal, in which Palin is alleged to have exerted undue pressure to fire a state trooper, is suffused with an element that many families can identify with: one sister stepping in on behalf of another in an acrimonious dispute with a brother-in-law.
Powerful media organizations are beginning to pour resources into this story, so much more damaging twists and turns may await. But assuming the accusations don’t grow more serious, it is of a considerably different nature as an abuse of power than the last Trooper-gate scandal to rock the political world — the one in which Bill Clinton was alleged to use his state troopers in Arkansas to procure women as sex partners. That wouldn’t excuse Palin’s actions, of course, but it would frame them in such a way that could limit the political damage.
“The media doesn’t understand life membership in the NRA; they don’t understand getting up at 3 a.m. to hunt a moose; they don’t understand eating a mooseburger; they don’t understand being married to a guy who likes to snowmobile for fun. I am not surprised that they don’t get it. But Americans get it,” said Florida Rep. Adam Putnam. “A mooseburger means she is like one of us. She is not some jackass who’s ‘gone Washington.’”
With a pregnant teenage daughter and an infant with Down syndrome, the Palins, it seems, have been caught up in the same struggles of everyday life that confront many American families. And it poses a difficult challenge for Democrats because she will be juxtaposed against Biden, a United States senator with 35 years of experience.
Biden has his own compelling narrative; he commuted back to Wilmington, Del., daily for years to be with his young sons after his wife and infant daughter died in an automobile accident. But it is revealing that the first round of tough stories after his nomination explored conflicts of interest between Biden family members and one of the nation’s biggest asbestos litigation law firms. That’s a long way from fishing license violations.
If Palin can withstand more media vetting — a big if — and if she can avoid being framed as a nutty, gun-toting, Bible-thumper — another big if — it will suddenly become clear that there is no playbook for how to contend with a national politician who hasn’t been in the public arena long enough to accumulate the kind of personal and ethical baggage that almost invariably accompanies the ascent to power.
The recently dialed-down Democratic response to Palin’s nomination is an indicator that the Obama campaign is beginning to understand what it’s up against.
At a press availability Monday in Monroe, Mich., Obama strongly distanced himself from personal attacks on Palin.
“I have said before, and I will repeat again: People's families are off-limits," Obama said. "And people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Gov. Palin's performance as a governor or her potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories. You know, my mother had me when she was 18, and how a family deals with issues and teenage children, that shouldn’t be a topic of our politics."
Obama also firmly insisted that his campaign was not responsible for the proliferation of rumors about Palin’s family in the liberal blogosphere:
"I am offended by that statement. There is no evidence at all that any of this involved us," he said. "Our people were not involved in any way in this, and they will not be. And if I thought there was somebody in my campaign who was involved in something like that, they would be fired."