The Rookie Mistake

By Al Giordano


"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

-   Governor Sarah Palin, September 3, 2008

I'm always heartened when Nate Silver and I - each viewing the Palin speech last night from our respective cones of silence (and each with our hands full keeping websites overwhelmed by the stampede of so many new readers online) - end up drawing similar conclusions. Nate writes:

I think some of you are underestimating the percentage of voters for whom Sarah Palin lacks the standing to make this critique of Barack Obama. To many voters, she is either entirely unknown, or is known as an US Weekly caricature of a woman who eats mooseburgers and has a pregnant daughter. To change someone's opinion, you have to do one of two things. Either, you have to be a trusted voice of authority, or you have to persuade them. Palin is not a trusted voice of authority -- she's much too new...
...the fact remains that Barack Obama is extremely well known and Palin is largely unknown, and when that is the case, your perception of the known commodity is more likely to influence your perception of the unknown commodity than the other way around. If there's a certain Italian restaurant that you've been going to for years, and some stranger stops you on the street and tells you that they don't know how to cook their pasta, you're going to think that the stranger is a kook -- not that the restaurant is poor.


The co-pilot over at 538, Sean, adds:

St. Paul loved this speech... and so did Chicago. Palin swung for the fences, mocking the very notion of community organizing. So did Giuliani.


I knew something was "off" with the Palin presentation as I watched it last night but was slow to identify the precise moment that she blew it. The mortal error of Palin's speech was the attack on community organizers. Perhaps because I have self-identified as a community organizer for my entire adult life - with the scar tissue upon scar tissue that makes me used to and unconcerned with the typical belittling response from petty bureaucrats, governmental and corporate - I forgot about how the community that is organized takes special offense when some apparatchik goes after their own organizer.

Community organizers like Reginald and Mildred Martin in Houston, Texas were the recipients of Palin's snide attack. The angry reaction of from their son, Roland, who happens to be a CNN commentator, is indicative of something that happened in neighborhoods and farmlands throughout every corner of the country. "She mocked community organizers," an angry Martin told the nation, "the GOP does not give a flip about community organizers. It means they don't care about you... wanna talk about small town values? Don't you dare criticize the people who fight for community people who have community issues":


Palin's claim to portray herself as the new Erin Brockovich, the PTA everymom, five-months-long heroine of the special-needs kids (perhaps including her running mate, who will appear tonight from a remodeled convention stage complete with a Braille teleprompter specially constructed for the charisma-impaired?), field marshal for the armies of the unborn - and then also attack community organizers as a group - delivered a self inflicted wound.

Apparently, for all the Field & Stream hype, she really isn't any more skilled with a knife or a gun than the current vice president. Twenty million people saw her stab herself in the leg last night while attempting to skin the donkey.

Whether she wrote that "community organizer" one-liner, or McCain's handlers imposed it upon her (given Giuliani's similar sideswipe, I'm guessing the latter), it was her rookie mistake to have recited it during her national debut. Palin did not have the street smarts to excise such a gaffe before delivery. And so she ended up offending the most respected person in every neighborhood and small town in America as collateral damage of her snipe at Obama.

Related, is that the PUMAs, last night, went from the category of "endangered species" into extinction. "In lieu of flowers, donate to Obama." Senator Clinton has to be happy that she won't be saddled with that embarrassment any more.

Gloria Steinem wrote, in response, that Sarah Palin "shares nothing but a chromosome with Hillary Clinton. She is Phyllis Schlafly, only younger," in her LA Times column:

...the anti-feminist right wing -- the folks with a headlock on the Republican Party -- are trying to appease the gender gap with a first-ever female vice president. We owe this to women -- and to many men too -- who have picketed, gone on hunger strikes or confronted violence at the polls so women can vote. We owe it to Shirley Chisholm, who first took the "white-male-only" sign off the White House, and to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who hung in there through ridicule and misogyny to win 18 million votes.
But here is even better news: It won't work.


Oops! The women's movement, too, was built by community organizers.

Froma Harrop, who dedicated the entire primary season to attacking Obama quite viciously while championing Senator Clinton from her Providence Journal column, finally go the memo, and wrote about it:

What a McCain presidency now promises is another four years of Terri Schiavo and other artifacts of the cultural right. You remember Schiavo's husband having to fight the Bush administration and Republican Congress to remove his wife -- in a vegetative state for 15 years -- from life support. It's four more years of national humiliation as our leadership undermines the teaching of evolutionary science, and if something happens to John McCain, opposes stem-cell research.
One tries to untangle McCain's political calculations. The Schiavo case, creationism and similar excesses appeal to a passionate but small slice of the electorate. They are one reason voters are booting Republicans out of power. So while some religious conservatives may be "energized" by the Palin pick, most everyone else is revolted.


The Obama campaign wasted no time seizing upon what everybody outside of the media newsrooms (where they don't "get" community organizing either) understands was the major gaffe of the week, putting up a "Fight Back" page for donations with an early morning email rally from Plouffe:

Both Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin specifically mocked Barack's experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago more than two decades ago, where he worked with people who had lost jobs and been left behind when the local steel plants closed.
Let's clarify something for them right now.

Community organizing is how ordinary people respond to out-of-touch politicians and their failed policies.

And it's no surprise that, after eight years of George Bush, millions of people have found that by coming together in their local communities they can change the course of history. That promise is what our campaign has been about from the beginning.

Throughout our history, ordinary people have made good on America's promise by organizing for change from the bottom up. Community organizing is the foundation of the civil rights movement, the women's suffrage movement, labor rights, and the 40-hour workweek. And it's happening today in church basements and community centers and living rooms across America.


A hockey mom has to be careful not to elbow or get in the face of all the soccer moms and football moms and baseball moms and basketball moms, but Palin couldn't help herself last night. She had to say, in a few fateful words, "I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,' except that you have actual responsibilities."

Translation: I got elected and therefore I am better than all of you!

In her attack on community organizers, Palin not only revealed her own petty hubris and scorn for the real people she plays on TV, but she also inadvertently awakened a sleeping giant: The community organizers and those we have organized in a million struggles large and small. We are everywhere.


Update: Reader George writes, via email:


Also was thinking about the pay that Obama got as a community organizer vs. the pay that Palin got for being mayor.   $10,000 vs. $75,000.    Hmmm. 


Good point. Get it to re-write:

"I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,' except that you get paid seven times as much!"

Update II: Crimmins reflects on last night's fear-of-community-organizers revelations:


It's time for Barack Obama to continue exactly what he did to get where he is today. He needs to step up what was roundly mocked last night. He needs to community organize. Just as Palin wants to turn the entire nation into a paranoid and intolerant small town, Obama must continue his work to turn American voters into a very large, organized community. The R's tipped their strategy last night - they think community organizing is an easy thing to pooh-pooh. But in the back room the reason for the attack is different -- these people fear an effectively organized electorate. This attack was first unveiled by crooked cross-dresser Rudy Giuliani, who asked if anyone even knew what a community organizer does. Of course he knows exactly what a community organizer does - - a community organizer makes life miserable for racist, fascist mayors like Giuliani. A community organizer helps create collective power by motivating large numbers of downtrodden people to hope for a better day. There are more than enough downtrodden people in this country to organize and so they can tip the scales of power. If Barack Obama can continue to inspire these folks to get politically active, they'll create a roar so loud that it will be heard even behind the walls of the most fortified gated community.


Update III: Blame the hyper-over-shooting and self-wounding fast-talk on the meth? (Hat tip, Andrew Sullivan.)


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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