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Posted at 11:54 AM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Sarah Palin, the "lamestream" media and its limits

By Chris Cillizza

Can Sarah Palin run against the media and win?

Much has changed about Sarah Palin since she burst into the national political consciousness in the summer of 2008 as John McCain's vice presidential pick.

But, the one thing that has not changed is her disdain for the media.

In Palin's speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention, she uttered these lines:

"I've learned quickly, these past few days, that if you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone."

"But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people."

Fast forward two years to a Thanksgiving Day Facebook note posted by Palin that amounted to an extended denunciation of the media's alleged tendency to pick and choose the stories they cover based on their personal political proclivities.

"When we the people are effective in holding America's free press accountable for responsible and truthful reporting, then we shall all have even more to be thankful for," Palin wrote in the note.

The consistency of Palin's media bashing has come -- more than any other issue or policy proposal -- to define how she is perceived and understood by her supporters and opponents.

But, can putting attacks on the "lamestream media" -- to borrow one of Palin's pet phrases -- at the center of your public persona be a winning campaign strategy for the former Alaska governor if she decides to run for president in 2012?

Opinions on that question differ widely within Republican political circles.

Alex Vogel, a prominent Republican lobbyist and former adviser to Sen. Bill Frist (Tenn.), argues that Palin's positioning against the media is a potent political space to occupy.

"Attacking the mainstream media is a home run message that has proven its resonance with Fox News viewers, Jon Stewart groupies, tea party activists, and Dan Rather-mistrusting Republicans," said Vogel. "[Richard] Nixon rode a similar set piece all the way to the White House."

In Vogel's line of thinking, Palin's anti-media rhetoric is rightly understood as emblematic of a broader distrust in public institutions -- a sort of populism that has proven very sell-able in recent decades in politics. (See Clinton, Bill or, to a less successful extent, Edwards, John.)

A Pew poll conducted in April showed widespread distrust -- and even anger -- toward almost every major institution in the country.

Nearly seven in ten people said banks and the financial industry are having a negative effect on the direction of the country while 65 percent said the same of the federal government. Fifty-seven percent said the media was having a negative effect on the direction of the country.

Palin, then, is using the media as a symbol of everything that's wrong in America at the moment. In a sentence: big, faceless institutions that have little regard for the average person.

Vogel's view on Palin's media criticism, however, is far from the majority opinion among the Republican professional class.

"Running as a victim, or as a martyr, is not a winning strategy," said John Weaver, a longtime strategist for McCain.

Vin Weber, a former Congressman and a backer of likely 2012 candidate -- and Minnesota governor -- Tim Pawlenty echoed Weaver's sentiment. "Media bashing is a sure way to generate applause at any Republican gathering but it doesn't really win votes by itself -- even primary votes," he said.

Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the Bush White House, said that the recent losses by Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware suggests the limits of a campaign centered on bashing the media.

"Angle and O'Donnell proved that if you are not able as a conservative to stand up and deal with the press, you risk turning off a lot of voters who wonder what you are made of," said Fleischer.

(It's worth noting that the critics of Palin will almost certainly be used by her allies to affirm her argument that the GOP establishment -- yet another institution -- is broken and outdated. Palin's PAC didn't return an email seeking comments for this story.)

There is broad agreement that Palin's decision to put her disdain from the media at the core of her public persona would pay some dividends in a fight for the Republican presidential nomination.

Hammering the media has been a regular set piece for any serious national Republican presidential candidate for quite some time for a simple reason: it works. And, Palin is, without question, the most effective purveyor of this anti-media strain within the GOP.

But, unless she begins to broaden her media hit into a larger indictment of institutions, she almost certainly runs the risk of limiting her appeal even within the Republican primary.

Voters almost always want to feel as if they are voting for someone (or something) rather than just against that which they don't like.

"She has deep support but it isn't wide," said Weaver. "To broaden her appeal she needs to begin focusing on a positive message relating to issues people care about."

The media -- or public institutions more generally -- is a ripe and ready target for Palin. But, on its own calling out the media is almost certainly not enough to propel her to the GOP nomination or the presidency.

Palin has shown a knack, however, for finding second -- and third and fourth -- acts on the national stage when many people expected her to simply disappear. And so, dismissing her ability to widen her message beyond its current anti-media focus would be a major mistake.

By Chris Cillizza  | December 2, 2010; 11:54 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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