As we coast through the final days before Americans elect their next President, the future of the Republican Party in America – thanks mainly to Gov. Sarah Palin – is very much in question.
The chipper Alaska governor has, in just a few weeks, neatly highlighted a fundamental divide in GOP ranks. On the one hand, there are the small-government, old guard Conservatives who, though perhaps religious, nonetheless appreciate intellectual inquiry and a cohesive sentence. The late William F. Buckley, Jr. was the iconic example of this set. On the other hand, the G.O.P. has lately welcomed a swath of faith-charged heartlanders who cheer Fox News, reject ideas in general and vote with their crucifixes – especially on so-called ‘moral issues’ such as abortion and same sex marriage. (Example? Oh, any Ann Coulter fan should do.)
These complementary yet distinct subsets might not have mingled socially, but as a voting base they were very effective. Together, they placed and kept George W. Bush in office, buoyed the Iraq war, and endorsed the easy-credit, cheap-money economy that has now brought the nation to its knees.
But Gov. Sarah Palin has divided the party.
A few highlights: just this month, the Conservative magazine National Review ran a scathing indictment of Palin; shortly thereafter, Christopher Buckley (son of WFB) endorsed Obama and resigned from the magazine his father founded. Colin Powell, George Bush's former Secretary of State, came out to endorse Obama on Meet the Press with Tom Brokaw.
These high-profile ditchings are endemic of a deeper rift: between voters who tolerated an everyman veneer on their President in order to see pet policies pushed through, and those who would seemingly actually endorse a neophyte for high office.
At the time, Palin’s appointment probably seemed logical. After all, playing to a (low) common denominator has worked wonders for the Republicans in recent years. Bravado beats books. Faith trumps reason. Big words are scary and distancing – so give the people someone who talks like they do, gaffes and all. With universities and the mainstream media increasingly branded as big-L Liberal, Conservative candidates have veered toward outright anti-intellectualism to scoop up votes.
When McCain tapped Palin as his nominee for Vice President, he no doubt sought to mine the same vein of back-to-basics bedrock sentiment that had worked so well for George W. Bush. But anything in excess is a poison, and Sarah Palin has proven to be too much of a bad thing.
We need not revisit here her now-famous interviews, the stunning poetry of her ‘verbiage,’ or the countless op-eds from conservative writers rejecting her as inexperienced, inadequate, and an insult to the electorate. What matters is that a major component of the Republican Party finds Palin difficult to stomach, and the G.O.P. is hemorrhaging moderates at a time when it can least afford to do so.
If Obama wins next week, as the popular polls and the markets suggest (2008.PRES.OBAMA trading above 85), G.O.P. heavies must weigh seriously and carefully the role they want Sarah Palin to play going forward. Her supporters within the party may seek to propel her toward the next presidential nomination (if you think so, you can already invest in 2012.REP.NOM.PALIN).
But that would be a bad move. A candidate who drives staunch, old guard Republicans from the fold isn’t good for business – and with Palin as leader of the Republican Party, the inmates truly will run the asylum. With moderates long gone, the fraction of Americans that remain in Palin’s GOP will look ever more like marginalized extremists.
America is ready for an intellectually respectable leader – and poised, at last, to get one. As the Republican Party retreats to nurse the stunning double axe-wounds delivered by the Bush administration and the coming Obama landslide, they will no doubt think carefully before thrusting Sarah Palin to center stage once more.