After Tucson shootings, Sarah Palin isn't retreating, she's reloading
In many ways, Sarah Palin mirrors the ethos of the gun-rights movement she promotes: never back down. Criticized for her rhetoric in the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, she's since posted a combative defense on Facebook and signed up to speak at a hunting and gun convention.
Say one thing for Sarah Palin: She heeds her own advice.
Coming only days after Ms. Palin was drawn into the Arizona shooting drama, news that the former Alaska governor and potential presidential aspirant will headline a gun-friendly hunting convention Jan. 29 fits her famous stump phrase: "Don't retreat, reload."
It is a philosophy that defines Palin as a political figure and also points to how closely her own public persona echoes that of the American gun culture she promotes. Just as the gun-rights community has prided itself on not backing down from any challenge but rather thriving on adversity to win broader victories, Palin has once again answered her critics with confrontation this week.
To critics, it is one of the traits that makes Palin unlikely to succeed as a presidential candidate. To backers, however, it sets her apart.
For Palin, perhaps, it was only natural to envision 20 congressional districts ripe for a tea party takeover last November as targets marked by cross hairs. The fact that one of those targets was Arizona’s Eighth District, and the fact that the district’s Democratic representative, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in an apparent assassination attempt Saturday, made Palin and her map a topic of debate only minutes after the shooting.
Palin acknowledged she had prayed about what happened in Tucson. But in taped remarks issued Wednesday on her Facebook account, she also lambasted her media critics for committing "blood libel" by making a "reprehensible" insinuation.
She might as well have taken a page from how the gun-rights movement has reacted to challenges against it during the past 20 years.
The gun lobby's relentless campaign
Despite mass-shooting tragedies like the one at Columbine High School in 1999 and Virginia Tech in 2007, for instance, the gun lobby and gun owners never paused in a concerted campaign to expand so-called "shall-issue" gun regulations, which mandate that states automatically have to approve a gun license if a person clears a background check.
In 1980, nine states had "shall-issue" laws; today, 37 do. [Editor's note: The original version of the last two paragraphs gave a wrong name for "shall-issue" gun regulations.]
Moreover, Palin’s use of Facebook to carve out her own narrative apart from the mainstream press is reminiscent of the strategy used by gun-rights advocates to turn the national momentum against gun control during the past two decades.
In the 1990s, gun-rights activists were among the early adopters and pioneers of blogs, online bulletin boards, and listservs, says Brian Anse Patrick, a gun-culture expert and author of "Rise of the Anti-Media.” Often ignored or ridiculed mainstream journalists, gun owners – not always in lockstep with the National Rifle Association – spread news, analysis, and philosophy across the Internet, posting items like “Gun news the media didn’t report today.”
Eventually, examples of such "antimedia" began competing, even toppling, traditional media narratives, not only clearing the way for more gun rights, but also providing a powerful template for political movements like the tea party and political outsiders like Palin, says Mr. Patrick, who is also a communications professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
"People are now interpreting their own reality, and Palin's been able to take advantage of that," he says.
Playing to a niche or nationally?
Within the gun-rights community, at least, Palin may be able to successfully reframe the charges against her as an attack on individualism by an group of elites – a refrain that American gun owners have used effectively to fight against stronger gun control laws.
"People in the gun culture thrive on adversity, and they're now facing a level of animosity where all of a sudden [critics] are attributing homicidal craziness to gun owners," says Patrick. "But the fact is, people in the gun culture are a pretty benevolent bunch who see gun ownership as part of individualism, and Palin understands that."
But can that translate into political success on a national stage? Some commentators suggest that Palin's defensive tone and inability to rise above the media fray signal problems for a potential presidential campaign.
"Doubtless there are conservatives who will thrill to Ms. Palin's pugnacity," writes columnist Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. "But voters in the center, where presidential elections are won, don't like the idea of politics as a blood sport. They yearn for vision, stature, steadiness, a nod toward the ideal of bipartisan compromise and evidence of real competence – from conservative and liberal candidates alike. Ms. Palin has given them none of those things."
Americans seem split on the issue of sharp rhetoric and the violence in Tucson, Ariz. A CBS poll showed that 57 percent of Americans thought vitriolic rhetoric had nothing to do with the shooting. A subsequent Quinnipiac poll, however, found that 52 percent of respondents believed that "heated political rhetoric drives unstable people to commit violence," compared with 41 percent who don't see such a link.
No reason to back down on guns
But on Second Amendment issues especially – which are central to the tea party platform of "individual liberty" – Palin has little reason to back down, says Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"For her to back off on gun rights in any way [at this point] would not be true to who she is and who her constituency sees her as being," says Mr. Franklin. "That's why it makes sense that whatever she would have said before the shooting in Tucson are the same things she would want to say after the shooting."
Her speech is sold out.