What do Sarah Palin and John Edwards have in common?

According to Timothy Egan, who wrote an insightful piece about the pair last week, Palin and Edwards are two of an American archetype: opportunists playing to outrage while taking care of themselves. 

Palin supporters would find that comparison, um, outrageous, but it strikes me as accurate. I don’t say that with any sense of satisfaction or glee, especially since I have friends who admire Sarah Palin. But I think that Egan’s thesis is objectively verifiable. 

The anger that the Tea Partiers feel (some of it legitimate; some of it wildly misplaced and irrational) was stoked and disingenuously exploited in Palin’s Tea Party Convention speech on Saturday, as she took her handsome paycheck to the bank. (She has vowed to put the money back into “the cause,” but, as Egan points out, Sarah Palin’s cause always seems to be Sarah Palin).

And then there’s the meanness. And the sarcasm. In an hour-long speech devoid of substance, the hostile blows kept coming, as did the mockery and the petty insults. “How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” she asked the adoring, laughing crowd. 

Rhetorically, this does not work in Sarah Palin’s favor. Of course, it appeals to her staunchest supporters and to most of the Tea Party faithful, though among the latter there have been quite a few defectors of late. (There were  only about one hundred attendees at the Convention speech in Nashville on Saturday. At $600 a pop, it’s hard to see how the “average Joe” — for whom the Tea Party was founded — could afford a ticket)

But the people who would support a Palin presidency are statistically insignificant at this point in time. She is compelling to watch for all sorts of reasons, but her snarkiness is a turn-off even for many who admire her; her lack of substance and political heft are deficits that even the most conservative pundits can’t spin in her favor.

I sometimes wonder if Palin thinks she is being clever and satiric after the manner of people like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, imagining herself, like them, as one who pokes holes in the pretenses and false pieties of the political elite.

But satire is not what Palin does. It is what Stewart and Colbert, in slightly different ways, have perfected: revealing the absurdity of a position or point of view in ways that instruct and illuminate. Stewart and Colbert stand in the literary tradition of Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.

Palin seems more interested in the classic put-down, reminiscent of 1950’s lounge comedy as practiced by people like Don Rickles and Phyllis Diller. The point of the zinger in this tradition is not to encourage reflection, but to ridicule; it is not to reveal truth but to discredit, diminish, and belittle others.  

Because Palin has allied herself with this kind of public discourse, this way of using humor for political gain, there is a strange masculine swagger to her rhetorical style, despite the über-feminine physicality (the big hair and make-up, the flirty winks, the tight-fitting business suits).  

It is also hard to imagine any other woman anywhere regularly defending the vile speech that pours forth from Rush Limbaugh, as Palin did this past Sunday on Fox News. (When Rahm Emmanuel calls people “retards” he should lose his job; when Limbaugh does it, he’s making a valid political point). Even Chris Wallace seemed taken aback.

But perhaps what most reveals Palin’s opportunism is her use of the Tea Party platform to increase and prolong her media exposure when she has no intention of aligning herself meaningfully with the movement. To do so, even she realizes, would not be politically wise.

But is she willing to take $100,000 of their money? Fan the flames of their fears and prejudices? Bash the President relentlessly for an hour on a Saturday night?

You betcha.