It’s pretty hard whether you are a Republican or Democrat, not to have a strong opinion about the abilities - or lack thereof - of Sarah Palin. The problem, as I see it, is that most on both sides paint the former Alaska governor in cartoonish colors thus making them incapable of evaluating her politically or personally in any kind of reasoned, rational way.
While my opinion of Palin hasn’t changed since it became clear that her depthless intellect and lazy habits of mind made her extraordinarily unready for national office, the more I see of her, the more I want to understand her appeal - and figure out what drives the left nuts about her.
Some on the left and right compare her to Ronald Reagan. That’s just not happening for me. The only similarity I can see is a superficial likeness in the way that people respond to her rhetoric - a pale echo of the Gipper’s soaring imagery and heartfelt sincerity when speaking about “that America.”
“That America” is not necessarily the “real America.” America is many things to many people. We all define our own “American” reality. I daresay that an African American’s America is slightly different than the America of a conservative southern Christian. Neither vision is wrong or evil. Our reality is shaped by our experience, our upbringing, our schooling, our friends and family, and outside influences.
Reagan - and to a less successful degree Palin - sought to hack into the American memory where most of our mistakes and crimes of omission and commission are either blocked by a firewall or deleted. What’s left is the “shining city on a hill” - the aspirational notion of an exceptional nation inhabited by exceptional people; self reliant, fiercely independent, contemptuous of government/authority, and bound by a citizen-government compact that doesn’t allow deviation from the template that was laid down when America was a coastal republic of 7 million people.
Change - dynamic, incremental, or otherwise - is virtually unknown in “that America.” Reagan was enough of a pragmatist to realize that it was impossible to repeal Johnson’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal. But now Sarah Palin comes along and, while very short on specifics, hints at just such a revolution; a willy-nilly federalism capped by what Ambinder calls in this brilliant article, a “relitigating” of the social contract that has been the basis for life in America for the last 50 years:
Palin, writes Jonathan Raban in an excellent essay in the New York Review of Books, has an “exceptionally canny political instinct for connecting with her own kind.” It has been noted that her conservatism is resentment-based, and is fueled and nourished by the specter of elite mistreatment. (Palin is savvy enough to tease back.) But it is more than that. More than a list of grievances, Palin mixes Nixonian derision for those who think they know better with an aspirational dimension that motivates the middle class to vote. Out of the tony leagues of Washington and New York, she is — well, an Idahoan by birth, an exurbanite mother, able to expurgate the Republican Party of its own cosmopolitan tendencies. (This is one reason why the McCain campaign could not tend to her.) She is, as my friend @thetonylee says, “a hybrid of Nixon and Buchanan.”
The only presidential candidate who is able to put the boots to Obama and get away with it. What’s she running for? Not the question. What’s she running against? Not just Rockefeller Republicanism and the media, or pointy-headed law lecturer presidents, or Katie Couric: she wants to relitigate a bunch of issues that once were settled but now seem to be unraveling. The unrestricted embrace of immigration and the dilution of an American culture. Overweening Greenism. A complicated socially engineered tax code. A much larger role for government (embraced by the president who said that the era of Big Government Was Over and his successor, who was a Republican). The rule of experts. Even the concept of bipartisanship itself.
Ambinder is convinced that the way she is projecting herself smells suspiciously like she is a candidate in 2012. I think she wants to be but is being very cautious. She is leaving her options wide open, which is very smart, while making small moves on the national stage to both test the waters and leave herself an exit should the situation change in the next 10 months.
She can do this because she is the most popular Republican in the country right now. Even though a clear majority of Republicans don’t want to see her as president, an even larger number say that Palin “shares their values.” A majority of the GOP also believes that Palin represents a “new direction” for the party.
What is that direction? Ambinder:
In Searching for Whitopia, Rich Benjamin defines of a geo-racial balkanization that gives Palin-like candidates a natural base: towns like Couer d’Alene Idaho, with a “diversified economic base,” a pro-business regulatory environment, a commitment to “quality of life” issues, and — a 95% ethnic homogeneity. Coeur D’Aleners were migrants from the California of the 1990s; they live now in Colorado and the suburbs of Phoenix and are slowly pushing their way around the Sunbelt. Benjamin notes the “cultural, ancestral and implicitly racial” bond to their communities. The new residents come looking for land and living space; the long-time residents just want as little disruption as possible. Right now, there is enormous disruption. It is the same disruption that Democrats believe redounds to their benefit; depressed wages, exotic financial deals, government spending cuts (which feeds the disruption), what one Palin watcher calls the “downstream effects” of a country that has lived beyond its means for 60 years.
George W. Bush never spoke this language. He was an evangelical convert, more influenced by his advisers Catholicism than by, say, Palin’s Assembly of God charismatics. She is pure in ways the rich son of Connecticut could never dream of.
These simple folk of Idaho aren’t so simple. They get their news from talk radio and new media; and Palin speaks in 140-word epigrams: fragments that are icky to the ears of more polished speakers but convey meta-data — she understands this. What’s most appealing about Palin to these exurbanites, I think, is that the big Elite Crucible tore her apart — and she rose again, stood up, straightened her dress, and is now confronting her tormentors.
Palin speaks to a restlessness among conservatives who are uncomfortable with change. In the tea party movement, there is much hearkening back to a time when Americans didn’t need government so much (more realistically, government simply wasn’t there). While the fringes of the movement may not support much of any kind of government at all, the majority of tea partiers appear to be much more pragmatic in their criticism.
They may see a need for government in some areas but beyond anything else, they want the president and Congress - both parties - to adhere to founding principles. There is no reason this can’t be done while change occurs. Respecting individual freedom, acknowledging personal responsibility, adhering to the concept of constitutionally limited government, and following the rule of law are all under attack, and have been under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
I like to think that the linchpin that holds these principles together is prudence. And no one can make the argument that any of the last 3 presidents have demonstrated prudence when it comes to governing America.
Russell Kirk on prudence; one of his Ten Conservative Principles:
Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.
It’s almost as if Kirk read the health care reform bill. Or the prescription drug benefit. Or even the AUMF resolution. We have an imprudent government and as such, it has rejected First Principles in favor of the temporary political aggrandizement of the elites.
Palin articulates this uneasiness, tapping into the resentment held by those who don’t want their old shoe America to disappear. The people sense things are moving too fast, careening out of control. The budget and deficit are symptomatic. It is the abandonment of prudence by the governing elite that has unhinged the forces of change and no one appears to be in control - or care much where we end up.
She wants to take us back to a place and a time that never really existed except in the imaginations of “that America.” It won’t work - it never has worked. Reagan was able to capture this yearning, but governed prudently and pragmatically. In that sense, he was always a disappointment to the “true believers” who thought he had been captured by Jim Baker and the inside the beltway elite. “Let Reagan be Reagan” was the plaintive cry of the James Watts, Richard Vigueires, and other movement conservatives who placed their hopes in drastically rolling back government on Reagan’s shoulders. The Gipper decided that governing and winning was better than slashing and burning, while going down to defeat.
That may be the real danger of a Palin presidency. She is not pragmatic nor do I sense much prudence in her either. That would require self-reflection - something that she clearly has eschewed in favor of “going with her gut” on all except calculating her own personal, political future. Basically ignorant not because she is stupid but because she is lazy, the half formed opinions that spout from her during her speeches may be enough to satisfy her legions of worshipers but, as we are finding with President Obama, translate poorly into a governing philosophy. If Palin were to beat the odds and win, no doubt we would see a continuation of the “perpetual campaign” that passes for leadership and governance from Obama.
So might she win?
Not a single other Republican presidential candidate can build a crowd like Palin, can run against something like Palin (be it Washington, the media, the McCain campaign or Obama); no one speaks to the resentment/aspirational conservatives like she does; no one’s life has better exemplified the way they perceive their struggle against the elite. We like to think about presidential primaries in paradigms, but candidates who fit with the times often find ways to completely subvert established paradigms.
Yes she can.