Barack, Sarah and 'otherness'

The political thinkers sense an emerging realignment that makes Democrats the party of now and tomorrow and Republicans the party of yesterday.

It's demographic and geographic. Democrats already had the cities. On Nov. 4, they gained or won in many of the immediate and densely populated suburbs, those of Washington, D.C., and Atlanta and Charlotte and Denver. In those places, multi-ethnic diversity has grown and the schools are filled with all sorts of ethnic and national and racial combinations.

Before, Republicans could count on white conservatives in the suburbs. This time, Republicans were left with only remote pockets of strength -- particularly white, rural, provincial, religiously conservative, low-middle-class ones from Appalachia into the upper South.

The dynamic in these remote rural areas was partly race prejudice, of course. But it was more. It was distrust of what is being smartly called Barack Obama's "otherness." A middle name of Hussein, an African father, an early childhood education in Muslim Indonesia -- it was too much to throw folks in the backwoods and mountains.

The thinking is that the Democrats' groups and areas are vibrant and hip and that the Republicans' groups and areas are backward and dwindling.

This, then, would be a good time for caution: Realignments have been signaled and sensed before, then failed to solidify. Political changes emanating from demography and geography are, while real enough, little more than the foundation of real political transformation.

What must be built on those foundations is the handiwork of personal political talent.

Politics remains performance art. Races are still won by the best and most talented candidates.

American politics indeed will be transformed if Obama governs smartly and successfully and coalesces the groups that, in this one potentially fleeting season, lined up for him in a perfect storm. It was a storm facilitated essentially by an economic collapse and a blundering Republican opponent who didn't have nearly as much political talent.

The story the next four years will be a personal one. The main story will be Obama and how he performs the presidency and how luck favors or bedevils him.

The sub-plot will be Sarah Palin. It will be one of how deftly she solidifies the dwindling right wing while positioning herself to build on it should Obama fail and squander these tenuous demographic and geographic advantages.

Yes, Sarah Palin. I'm not saying she's as politically talented as Obama. I'm saying she's talented enough, the most talented, save perhaps Mike Huckabee, in the Republican arsenal.

It is true that she has been ridiculed. It is true that, in the end, she was more an inexperienced drag than electrifying boon to McCain.

Never mind any of that. Politics remains a game of name identification, celebrity and personal political talent and appeal. No one gets elected president without having gone through a gauntlet of ridicule -- Clinton for women and draft-dodging, George W. Bush for drinking and failed business enterprises, Obama for sitting in a weird church and associating with a mad hippy bomber from the '60s.

All this embarrassing ridicule of Palin is serving merely to vaccinate her. Freed from McCain's handlers, she is starting to show something oddly ingratiating. There's something appealing about getting interviewed while you stand in your kitchen and whip up moose stew. It humanizes gender politics in a way the infinitely more competent Hillary Clinton could never quite. It embraces the stereotype, the traditional role, and embroiders on it. There is no substitute for genuineness or the appearance thereof.

The opportunity is all Obama's. But so is the burden. Palin stands ready to resurrect her "real America" if he stumbles.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@