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WILLIAMS: Palin’s paradox

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

Before Sarah Palin became John McCain's running mate last year, we spent a morning in her Alaska office while she was still governor. We sat down for a one-hour TV interview, and I was most impressed with her insights, traditional values, grasp of issues, and just what a sincere and genuinely warm person she was.

The morning in her office made it clear why so many Americans across the board respond to and connect deeply with her brand of politics. However, the former governor has become an icon to many and a disaster waiting to happen for others.

Are Americans beyond questioning President Obama's birth? Do Americans believe for a second that Medicare administrators want institutional euthanasia for seniors? Will the media give her a platform to espouse Reaganesque doctrines or enough rope to hoist her up on her own petard? Will Mrs. Palin appear more radical the more opportunities she has to share her "Alaskan values"?

America loves second acts. Exhibit A: the book tour phenomenon. Every washed-up, has-been former star can jump-start his or her career by writing a book and singing a redemptive tune in book stops across the country. In many respects, the book tour is a microcosm of the democratic political process. The form relies on the ability of the writer to hold the audience's interest by simply recounting his or her own story. The most successful ones are able to resonate with the blue-collar public by suggesting a better alternative to their own lives.

Politicians thrive at this kind of performance art. Not surprisingly, the ghost-written autobiography has become de rigueur for both successful and washed-up political candidates. It provides politicians a chance to press the flesh and talk about why they are so likable. Politicians can do this for days on end.

The American voter is happily complicit. Voters judge their elected leaders much like a fifth-grade popularity contest. The stories of politicians are to Americans what the mythologies of the gods were to the ancient Greeks. Tell a personal, compelling narrative that resonates with the masses, and you've defined yourself. Your vision becomes far more impactful and wields with it a virtual legacy lasting far longer than any speech behind a podium.

I don't begrudge Mrs. Palin and the whirlwind media tour for the release of her book, "Going Rogue." It's a good read. It's more than 400 pages of talking points distilled into homespun metaphors. Does that constitute a good vision? I'm not so sure. And therein lies the problem with Mrs. Palin's much-expected run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

I'm not interested in penning a column critiquing her book. No matter what the polls and pundits here in Washington say, the tome is already topping the charts. But the launching of the book tour presents her with a unique opportunity for the next chapter in her political career, and while Mrs. Palin says publicly she's only focusing on the 2010 midterm elections, she needs to think beyond. If she fails to do so, the country won't have to wait until the 2012 primary season to see whether Mrs. Palin is running. She will have fizzled out long before.

These next few months must become Mrs. Palin's own personal primary - a time when she does some serious policy introspection and fleshes out in her mind what issues will define her presidential run. It's not enough to list them on a pocket card to recite at local pig roasts. She can only get so far with friendly locals more star-struck than hungry for solutions. Mrs. Palin must add intellectual heft behind her populist stands - drill down what sets her apart and then test it with the populace.

The challenge is not to contrast against her potential primary opponents - they've yet to really surface, let alone matter. No, Mrs. Palin's larger quest must come opposite the Great One himself, President Obama. It's a target-rich environment, for sure. Mr. Obama has given every Republican plenty to dismantle and deride. But Mrs. Palin's "aww-shucks/you betcha" persona sounds more nagging than nationalistic, and she needs to transfer her personal popularity into credible policy initiatives. Otherwise, she'll become just a footnote in the political career of Sen. John McCain.

The former Alaska governor's paradox is not isolated to her alone. This syndrome haunts even the most junior foot soldier in Republican Party ranks. They struggle for substance and depth in an otherwise static party that posts gains in weekly polling tallies only through the missteps of Democrats. In sports, they call that hoping for an ugly win (just ask the Redskins). Yet Republicans cannot, nor should they, expect Rahm Emanuel and his lieutenants to lie down for the next three years. This contest will only intensify, not weaken. And as more voters become frustrated with the current White House occupant, they'll hone their focus on potential alternatives.

Mrs. Palin's problem is also her biggest strength. Folks genuinely like her. "She just needs to look good," as one reader recently told me. The rest will take care of itself.

Followers don't expect her to recite Ayn Rand or William Blackstone in her speeches. They may not even care at this point. Yet they soon will, and Mrs. Palin must anticipate that rising hunger for substance all voters eventually come to expect and demand from presidential hopefuls. There will come a time when homespun homilies will not carry the day.

There's a major disconnect that started long before Mrs. Palin's book tour and traces its history back to her campaign days as a vice presidential contender. That disconnect, simply stated, is: Good policy makes good politics. All throughout her book tour, and continuing today, Mrs. Palin has served herself well on the rhetoric and yet has offered nothing by way of substance.

At some point, political leaders must stop preying on the fears of the citizenry and start offering workable solutions.

"The Armstrong Williams Show" is broadcast on XM Satellite's Power 169 channel from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. weeknights.

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