The Palin Factor

Tucker, Ross, Doug, Jim, and Christine,

There’s little to debate about where Republicans have gone wrong. As you’ve all pointed out, they’ve strayed from conservatism’s organizing principles on nearly every front.

Returning to those principles will help the party get back on track—and some of you have made some strong, interesting suggestions. One can quibble over the details of whatever blueprint emerges from the meetings about to begin, but no amount of tweaking market theories or foreign-policy models will save the Grand Old Party unless its members do some painful soul-searching about what kind of people they are.

I agree with you, Christine, that Barack Obama’s victory was more about hope than about change. The U.S. majority is still more centrist than left or right. In a recent Zogby poll, 59 percent of respondents described themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

The election was also a referendum on the Bush years. John McCain performed remarkably well considering the overwhelming dissatisfaction with all things Republican. And, finally, the economy broke at precisely the wrong time for anyone with an (R) by his name.

But something else also caused many to jump ship even though, philosophically, a leap toward Obama carried significant risk. Despite conflicts of self-interest, many conservatives shifted away for what we might call the “P Factor”: Sarah Palin. It wasn’t only her selection as McCain’s running mate, which becomes more unbelievable each day as previously off-the-record tidbits are surfacing. More important is what the “P Factor” revealed about the party itself.

It has become angry and ordinary. 

And, oh, by the way, proud of it.

We saw that starkly as Palin whipped up crowds, winking her way through attacks against Obama that telegraphed, “He’s not one of us.” We saw the cackling white man toting an Obama monkey to a rally and listened slack-jawed as country singer Gretchen Wilson belted out “Redneck Woman” while Palin clapped and lip-synched her favorite song.

Palin was the embodiment of ordinariness, despite her comely packaging, and managed while invoking the Christian God to repel our better angels.

I am not a snob and don’t much like those who are. I live among so-called “ordinary Americans,” a term I despise, and have devoted countless words through the years trying to explain the concerns of everyday people. I believe that most who flocked to Palin meant no one ill will, period. But they fervently want a country they recognize. They saw in Palin a kindred spirit who was fearless in defending bedrock values of family, country, and, yes, belief in a higher authority. What they failed to acknowledge was that Obama and family—churchgoing, well-educated exemplars of community service—were the embodiment of those same values, a Rockwellian portrait rendered with the brushstrokes of our professed core beliefs that all men are created equal—and that through hard work, anyone can become anything in the United States of America.

Palin wasn’t speaking only to her fellow Republicans’ hearts, however. She was speaking to their anxieties and the fear that goes unspoken: The Republican base is fast becoming a racial and cultural minority. Recognition of this statistical fact has caused unease for which Sarah Palin provided a promising balm. Her supporters were willingly blind to her weaknesses because validation and victory required it.

What a great many others saw was someone out of her depth, whose lack of knowledge—and apparent lack of intellectual curiosity—was a bonding agent with the Republican base. To concern oneself with trivial details such as what countries are part of NAFTA was to be derided as elitist. And everybody knows Republicans hate elitists.

Well, nobody likes elitists, really. But we certainly do aspire to become elites in our various fields of endeavor. Joe the Plumber undoubtedly considers himself an elite among those who keep the water flowing. Would a self-respecting Republican fail to acknowledge the desirability of military elites such as the Force Recon Marines, Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Army Rangers, or Air Force Commandos?

Might we not also want the country to be led by equally elite folks, well-versed in history, geography, foreign policy, and economics? It isn’t necessary that a vice president be able to pass the Foreign Service exam, but she ought to be able to demonstrate that she has read a newspaper in the past year or so. Among new information surfacing from inside the McCain campaign is that Palin didn’t know that Africa is a continent rather than a country unto itself. Is it mean and cowardly for anonymous campaign aides to whisper these anecdotes to the media, as Palin defenders insist? Or shouldn’t we, without snickering, admit that such things matter?

Palin covered her inadequacies with folksy charm and by drumming up a class war, turning her audiences not just against elites but against the party’s own educated members. The movement created by that superelite, but never elitist, William F. Buckley Jr. was handed over to Joe Six-Pack. Know-nothingness was no longer a stigma, but a badge of honor.

The Republican Party’s Baghdad Bobism with regard to Palin, a denial so pernicious that party operatives were willing to let her sit a heartbeat away from the presidency in a time of war and financial collapse, revealed what really ails the party. The “P Factor” isn’t a single person but a sickness that will have to be acknowledged and cured—Republicans will be reciting their newly tailored principles only to themselves. 

First, raise the bar.