Palin’s futile foreign policy stunt

A recent poll shows that Sarah Palin is fighting a losing battle to win the presidency in 2012.

More bad news for Sarah Palin: only 23 per cent of the American public think she is qualified to be president of the United States, and 64 per cent say she is not. One possible reason for the results of this poll could be her lack of experience. She did, after all, serve only half of her gubernatorial term in Alaska. Arguably, one of the areas in which she is weakest is in the sphere of foreign policy.

This could explain her recent trip to Haiti. This was an apparent bid to bolster her foreign policy credentials ahead of an expected presidential campaign in 2012. She is also reportedly considering trips to Britain and Israel in 2011 to the same end.

It is very difficult to take news of this trip seriously. While she may be making these appearances to project a more credible stance on foreign policy, it really should not have that effect. Tightly scheduled and regulated media appearances are not enough to claim foreign policy experience. This seems like a repeat of her visit to the UN in the lead-up to the 2008 election.

Nobody outside of her already diehard supporters is going to be convinced that sporadic appearances in other countries are enough to qualify her for America's highest office. If she does end up running for the presidency in 2012, does she really expect to use these visits to show how serious she is about foreign policy? There is a reason that Tina Fey's hilarious impression of Palin ("I can see Russia from my house!") stuck in the public consciousness: it was perilously close to the truth.

Granted, Candidate Obama had little by way of foreign policy experience. This was compensated for with a huge depth of knowledge regarding US law and the constitution. Does Palin have that? Well, considering that she did not know what the vice-president's role was while running for that very office, or that she believes the US to be founded on Christianity, the answer appears to be no.

The line of separation between church and state would be severely blurred under Palin, should she get her way. This recent trip to Haiti is another example of her wilful ignorance of that separation. She went at the invitation of Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse organisation, which has been criticised for appearing to put a greater emphasis on proselytising than on helping people during humanitarian missions.

The Haiti trip does not give Palin any real foreign policy gravitas. In fact, it merely highlights the extent to which she is not a serious person. The very idea that such a stunt would make her more electable becomes even more laughable in the face of the latest Politico poll. Does anyone really expect such token appearances will persuade the 64 per cent that she is qualified? The current polling is clear: Sarah Palin will not be elected president in 2012.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.