The news media's mad dash to highlight the inflammatory passages of Sarah Palin's new book, Going Rogue, largely misses the point. Too much attention has been paid to her continuing feud with Republican strategists from last year's campaign and her gripes about being mistreated by the media as the GOP vice presidential nominee. All that has little or no relevance to what makes the former Alaska governor so intriguing and so popular to so many, at least on the right. Many Americans see her as a vehicle for their anger and disgust at Washington, and the Palin phenomenon is part of a larger trend of turning against the Establishment across the board.
There are many signs of voter resentment. And the result could be a tide of hostility that will turn Washington on its head in next year's midterm elections and maybe in 2012. "The American people have gone shopping, and they have purchased all the ingredients necessary for a political upheaval," says pollster Frank Luntz, author of What Americans Really Want . . . Really. "The question is: Are they going to cook the stew?"
Recent polls show that Americans aren't happy with the leadership of the two major parties or the status quo in Washington. That includes what they see as the liberal, activist-government, big-spending policies of President Obama. Even though Obama remains personally popular, his policies are tanking, including his proposals for healthcare legislation. Fifty-five percent of Americans say the country is on the wrong track, and only 44 percent believe the nation is heading in the right direction, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. That represents a surge in pessimism from April, when only 48 percent said America was on the wrong track and 50 percent said the country was headed in the right direction. In the meantime, the unemployment rate climbed to 10.2 percent, perhaps the biggest source of anxiety for the middle class.
All this could be bad news for officeholders in general. And, since a majority of congressional incumbents are Democrats, it could be devastating for Obama's party. Half of Americans say they are inclined to look for someone new to support for Congress, and only 38 percent are inclined to re-elect their own legislator, according to the Post/ABC poll. Those attitudes are similar to the anti-incumbent feelings in May 2006, six months before the Democrats ousted the GOP and captured Congress. It could be anti-Washington fever all over again.
The mood among independents, the classic swing voters who tend to be centrists, is particularly negative. Nearly two thirds say they are inclined to seek new representatives. And independent voters now favor a generic Republican candidate for Congress by 52 percent to 30 percent, according to the Gallup Poll. The recent gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia resulted in victory for Republicans in two states where the Democrats held sway, partly because independents turned against the status quo.
But voters also are skeptical that the GOP will adequately represent their interests on healthcare, social policy, and other issues, so all this could also mean that opportunities are growing for a strong third-party or independent candidate for president in 2012. This is where Sarah Palin might come in. The GOP establishment distrusts her and doesn't think she could win a general election. And 60 percent of voters say she is not qualified to be president, with 53 percent saying they would "definitely" not vote for her, according to the Post/ABC poll. But many rank-and-file conservatives see her as a messenger for their scorn and fist-shaking anger. Palin might not be able to win the Republican presidential nomination if she decides to run, but she could certainly be the standard-bearer for people who want a Washington outsider to shake up the field.
Billionaire businessman Ross Perot rode a similar populist movement in the presidential election of 1992. He got 19 percent of the vote, and many believe he drew enough support from Republican President George Bush to throw the presidency to Democrat Bill Clinton.