Why The Grassroots Needs Elites

You should read Patrick Ruffini on the great right-wing pundit civil war. He argues that I'm underestimating the justifiable sense of betrayal movement conservatives feel at being simultaneously asked to swallow a massive, massive government intervention in the economy while their own pundit class is lecturing them about how Sarah Palin - whom they regard as the only good choice McCain has made all year - is the problem with the McCain campaign and the GOP in general. "I'm with Ross," he writes, "on the fact that we have bigger fish to fry than pundit-on-pundit action right now. But once the post-election recriminations begin, and when someone starts to bury Palin with blind NYT quotes, I'll stand firmly in the Palin camp."

So might I - but it depends on what you mean by "the Palin camp." I generally agree with the grassroots-conservative argument that Sarah Palin is not the reason John McCain is losing this election, and indeed that picking her as his running mate briefly opened the only opportunity to win it that he's enjoyed all year. And the voices on the center-left and center-right who are suggesting that McCain would be in better shape if he'd gone with his heart and picked Joe Lieberman are almost certainly kidding themselves. But on the other hand, I agree with the Palin-skeptics that she has not turned out to be an asset for McCain - for a variety of reasons, the media's unfair treatment of her included, but in large part because of her difficulties appearing prepared for high office during her interactions with the press, and because the campaign has decided to use her almost exclusively as an attack dog on the stump. And those conservatives who say "Palin's done great!" and "if only McCain would take the gloves off like she has!" and "David Brooks/David Frum/Peggy Noonan/Etc. are just kissing up to liberals!" are doing their veep nominee no favors at all, both in this election and in any future race that she might run. (At the very least, I don't think it's a coincidence that while Palin has been saying a lot of the things that Mark Levin, among others, thinks McCain should be saying as well - throwing out Ayers and ACORN references, and mixing accusations that Obama isn't fit to be commander-in-chief with the old-time Reaganite religion - her favorable ratings have only gone down. It can't all be because the media is unfair, and the right-wing punditocracy won't defend her.)

Here's the thing: The Republican Party will be a populist party going forward, or it won't be a party at all. But the more populist it becomes - the more figures like Palin and Mike Huckabee and Tim Pawlenty replace the blue-blazer Republicans of yore - the more it needs an elite capable of preventing it from spinning away into anti-intellectualism, hidebound dogmatism, and pure folly. Yes, sometimes these elites are snobbish and insidery, overly impressed with credentials, overly concerned about what their liberal pals think, overly willing to treat their party's base as an embarrassment. Sometimes the base is right and the elites are wrong. Sometimes you need a better class of elite entirely. But you still need them, and you need candidates who listen to them.

So you might think that David Brooks is too taken with Barack Obama's facility for Reinhold Niebuhr-related jaw-jaw, and too quick to attack conservatives who don't share his views on immigration, say, or the bailout. But if you want Sarah Palin as your standard-bearer, you need a Brooks, or someone like him, at the table when her speeches are being written and her policy positions are being hashed out. You need elites, and you especially need elites who work and live outside the conservative cocoon, and who have a sense of how to talk to people who aren't already persuaded that a vote for Obama is a vote for socialism and surrender. The more populist your party, in fact, the smarter it needs to get - at wooing swing voters, and talking intelligently about policy questions, and yes, even at charming the liberal media - because you know the elites on the other side won't cut it any slack. And a populist party that makes a lot of its elites feel unwelcome - that accuses them of betraying the team when they offer criticisms, and says "good riddance" when they head for the exits - is a party without much of a future at all.