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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

She’s a hockey player. She’s a fourth-line hockey agitator, beloved by the home crowd, loathed by the opponents, injecting passion into both fan bases, the kind of home-team hero that no Stanley Cup winner goes without.

Once upon a time, I applied an NFL-replay mentality to hockey playoffs, holding on to outrages over missed calls, blatantly unfair officiating, double standards, and outright getting-away-with-stuff (which always led to an early spring exit for my beloved Blues). I wanted – and unreasonably expected – bad behavior to be proportionally punished.

And then several years ago I had an epiphany about the hockey playoffs – nobody is coming to save you. Initiators win, reactors lose. Expect adversity, because it’s built in. The fourth-line, no-scoring-talent, pest agitators (or as we now call them, “energy guys”) have a specific job. Skate in, take a cheap shot, make it after the whistle. Make it against the rules. Stir something up. Put a wet glove in the other guy’s face and rub it. Get the outrage flowing. Get the opponent not thinking about the game, get them thinking about your shenanigans. And what happens? The “victimized” team loses its composure, hitting back. The guy who hits second is always the guy who goes to the penalty box.

Watching Sarah Palin this week, and the reaction to her by both sides, and all the talk of hockey mommery, I realized that this is who she is. She skates into the corner, throws up an elbow, and the Democrats cry: “Foul!” Hey! She said Obama has never passed a major bill – this is an objective lie! Hey! She ridiculed community organizing the day after Service was the theme! Technically people should punish her by not voting for her over this infraction!

It’s whining, and whiners hit back second and go to the penalty box on top of it.

Sarah Palin is a person who by her own admission found out about the Iraq surge – the centerpiece of the McCain judgment argument – from television. Apologies to conservatives, but technically, objectively, inarguably, this alone makes her unqualified to be President. But we don’t live in that technical or objective world. Political campaigns – as distinct from policy and governance – are the NHL playoffs. It’s only about who survives the war of attrition to the finish line first. Is Brett Hull’s skate still in Dominik Hasek’s crease and was that same situation disallowed in every previous instance throughout that season? Yes, but so what? Dallas had a parade.

In the hockey analogy, Palin wouldn’t get within a thousand miles of an NHL All-Star Game because she’s not a scoring talent. She’s a role player, an emotion-rouser. Emotion messes with the chalkboard-drawn game plan and thus achieves a specific strategic objective. She can make game-changing agitation plays that rouse her home team and provoke the other side into counterattacks that – 100% of the time – end up punishing the team who hits back. Democrats would be smart to understand her as such, and I see a lot of reaction that doesn’t seem to grasp what Palin is doing and the value she’s providing. I see a lot of Democrats taking a lot of bait.

This applies more to Democratic surrogates than it does to the top-ticket duo. Joe Biden had the smart response yesterday – naming the behavior – expecting it, and then riding through without taking the bait:

“It was about how well placed — and boy she is good — how a left jab can be stuck pretty nice. It’s about how Barack Obama is such a bad guy.”

And that’s all he says of Palin’s antics. Name the behavior, even praising the skill with which the agitation was attempted, and then back to focus. It’s “the economy, stupid.”

Finally – is the analogy complete? In the end a great hockey agitator who rouses both sides emotionally (and successfully gets the other team to lose focus) still needs the home team scoring talent to come through. Successful agitator Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings had the clutch Steve Yzerman for a lot of years. That worked. Detroit won Cups. They had parades.

Successful agitator Tyson Nash, when he was on my Blues, was stuck with the antithesis of playoff clutch, the easily thrown-off-his-game Keith Tkachuk. That didn’t work. No Cup. Even if Palin is successful in her task of agitation and distraction, which one is John McCain?

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