Sarah Palin may have enraptured the party faithful, but the Republicans will condemn themselves to a long time in the wilderness if they allow her to run in 2012by Erik Tarloff / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
To discuss this article visit First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
Unlike her vanquished running mate, the governor of Alaska is not going gently into that good night.
Plucked out of obscurity by a desperate John McCain, Sarah Palin was initially not much more than a Rorschach ink blot onto which observers could project their own imaginings. No one in the other 49 states knew anything substantive about her (most didn’t even know her name). But the politically-savvy operatives of the religious right were aware, through their grapevine, that she was one of them; they knew her opposition to abortion was categorical and unconditional, and hence they had placed her name on a shortlist of acceptable running mates provided to McCain, more as a ukase than helpful guidance. “Pick one of these if you expect our support,” was the implicit message. And so in September, in the midst of a successful Democratic convention, having lagged in the polls all year and facing the prospect of a dispirited convention of his own, McCain, not untypically, took a gamble.
It made a certain tactical sense. The right clearly liked the idea of Sarah Palin even if they didn’t know her well. Hillary Clinton supporters were reportedly unhappy with the way their candidate had been treated by the Obama forces and might respond positively to the selection of a woman on the opposing ticket. The novelty and unexpectedness of the choice might galvanise an otherwise unenthusiastic party base. Although Palin hadn’t been adequately vetted, and although McCain barely knew her, his situation was dire enough to prompt him to go for it. In chess, this is called a “desperado tactic”: launching an unsound attack when your position is untenable. In American football, it’s called a “Hail Mary”: throwing long and praying someone on your team will fortuitously be in position to catch the ball and score.
Taking a very narrow and very short-term view, the manoeuvre succeeded. The right wing of an increasingly conservative Republican party was thrilled. The novelty of the choice—especially after an interminable primary season in which all of the major players had become drearily familiar—was catnip to the media. The image Palin presented to the world—an ordinary, quite attractive family woman with extraordinary energy and common sense—appealed to voters. Much was made of her delivery of her acceptance speech—even though it was not merely written by others, but written by and large before she had even been selected. As a former television sportscaster, she was competent at reading text off a teleprompter, more competent by far than the man at the head of the ticket. On the strength of that one performance, she was proclaimed a star. For the first time in many months, John McCain pulled ahead of Barack Obama in some of the polls. Not by a statistically significant amount (two points at best), but for a candidate who had been trailing all year, statistical significance is the last thing to bother about.
But of course, the euphoria was unsustainable. The problems that quickly emerged can essentially be reduced to three: Palin was profoundly ignorant; she was something close to what William Safire once notoriously called Hillary Clinton, a congenital liar; and, in addition to and separate from her ignorance, she was an imbecile. It was soon apparent she couldn’t answer simple factual questions, most of her crowd-pleasing claims were demonstrably false and, worst of all, she couldn’t even put a coherent sentence together. The slovenliness of her mind was a thing of wonder.
But at the same time, she’d become the darling of the party’s right wing. McCain couldn’t jettison her; she was more popular with the base than he. She was a heroine, she could do no wrong. Many conservatives simply refused to acknowledge the evidence before their eyes. And she had the bumptious self-confidence that comes from not knowing better. As Kurt Vonnegut once observed: “The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe that there is such a thing as being smart.” While the McCain people (and, reportedly, McCain himself) were tearing their hair out at her stubborn ineducability, her entourage thought she was performing splendidly.
The Republicans fought an inept and deeply ugly campaign. Palin’s camp leaked to the press in late October that she was frustrated it wasn’t uglier, that she felt she muffled by McCain. This was a declaration of independence issued by someone who knew the ticket was going down and wanted to salvage something from the wreckage for herself.
The modern Republican party is two different entities uneasily yoked together. There is the old wing, largely from the northeast; for over a hundred years America’s party of business (and, except for a stretch in the mid-20th century, its party of governance). Fiscally conservative, socially moderate, it was considered “the daddy party,” the party that could be relied upon to govern soundly if not always imaginatively. In the decades following the second world war, a new wing, largely located in the southwest (although taking its intellectual cue from Ayn Rand, William F Buckley and a number of sociologists, historians, and economists at the University of Chicago), and far more radical and doctrinaire, began to grow in influence. In the 1960s, southerners who defected from the Democrats after the civil rights act, evangelical in orientation and opposed not only to liberalism but in many ways to modernity itself, joined forces with the westerners and quickly became a force within the party. For a while, the older branch was able to mine the newer for its votes without much regard to actual policy (even Ronald Reagan, the movement’s Lochinvar, governed far more moderately than he campaigned). But over time the power relations switched. By dint of both numbers and passion, the newcomers seized control. Their final triumph was the administration of George W Bush, who, in an ironic reversal of Reagan, campaigned as a moderate but governed as…well, we all know how he governed.
The older wing of the party has now become a relatively small and powerless rump faction (the last surviving moderate northeastern Republican in the house of representatives, Christopher Shays, lost his seat on 4th November). Every Republican seeking the party’s presidential nomination in 2008 had to claim adherence to its radical wing. Former moderates like Mitt Romney and John McCain performed spectacular forensic calisthenics in order to establish their right-wing credentials to primary voters.
To these voters, Sarah Palin is the real thing, an irresistible candidate of impeccable right-wing orthodoxy. There were responsible voices on the right who had the integrity to dissent, (such as Kathleen Parker in the National Review , who deemed Palin “clearly out of her league” and begged her to “bow out”). But, in general, the mass of movement voters were enchanted, and no public missteps, no matter how egregious, could dissuade them. She had them at “You betcha.” In the face of unanimous polling indicating otherwise, many conservative pundits praised her rare interviews and even claimed she won her debate with Joe Biden on 2nd October. WABC radio talkshow host Monica Crowley managed to style Palin’s disastrous performance “dazzling.” William Kristol, in the pages of The Weekly Standard and The New York Times, repeatedly sang her praises and unearthed otherwise imperceptible virtues and skills. Pat Buchanan, right-wing commentator and self-styled head of “the pitchfork brigade,” called her “very intelligent and a great talent,” and now claims she has a huge future in the party.
To many, she is the future of the party. In the final weeks of the campaign, 69 per cent of Republican respondents told pollsters that Palin was helping the ticket—at the precise time that 60 per cent of the country found her unfit for the vice presidency. In a Rasmussen poll conducted after the election, 64 per cent of Republicans said they wanted her as their presidential candidate in 2012. This isn’t mere denial, it’s cognitive dissonance.
The Palin problem and the Republican problem are one and the same. After enduring eight years of maladministration, the country has moved beyond the simplistic political formulations of George W Bush and his party, but the hard core of that party has not. (A sizable majority of Republicans tell pollsters John McCain lost the election because he was insufficiently conservative, and the post-election bickering between the McCain and Palin camps has somehow burnished her reputation at the expense of his). To such people, Palin is a potential saviour. She’s ambitious enough to covet the presidency, and there will be many activist Republicans who insist she has earned it. While it’s unlikely she has the skills to survive the rigours of a primary season, it would be surprising if she isn’t dubbed the frontrunner before the process commences. But she is also a divisive figure unacceptable to non-ideologues, and her participation promises to harm the party’s prospects in the 2012 election.
In the end, Republicans have no one else to blame. By pandering to their base and elevating someone manifestly incompetent, they’ve marginalised themselves, and they don’t seem to know it.
To discuss this article visit First Drafts, Prospect’s blog
Michael Lind’s post-election cover story on what Obama means for American liberalism, plus a Prospect symposium on the future of America with contributions from Martin Walker, Thomas Wright, Jonathan Derbyshire and James Crabtree.
Also, exclusively online, ABC’s foreign correspondent Jim Sciutto argues that Obama will struggle to make friends in the middle east and Stephen Boyle explains why the Democrats might turn out to be Obama’s worst enemy.