Getting Sarah Palin's Paradigm
"If the primaries were this year, I suspect she'd be nominated," a senior adviser to one of Sarah Palin's potential rivals confides. It's easy to see why: no one who's thinking of running beats the enthusiasm she generates among Republican activists. But there is more to the case for Palin than just the confluence of her personality and a vacuum within the Republican Party: there is a method to her management of her public image. It strongly hints that she has pretty much decided to run for president in 2012, unless something knocks her out of the race; it is more organized and structured that it appears; and it is something that Republican insiders, in particular, will ignore at their peril.
Next week, Palin will be a VIP guest of honor at the Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500. She'll walk among the campers and RVs set up infield. This summer, she's agreed to speak at an international bowling expo. In April, in Las Vegas, Palin will keynote the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers Convention at Caesar's Palace. She will make choices in Republican primaries -- she campaigned Sunday with Rick Perry, bearing a "Hi mom!" on her palm -- more on that in a bit -- and an eloquent jab at the President: "'We will proudly cling to our guns and our religion."
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.
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. When it was pointed out that Palin had scribbled some policy points on to her hand during the Tea Party Q and A, she was widely mocked. The next day, Palin wrote "Hi Mom!" on her palm. Palin doesn't like to be mocked, but she doesn't like to be beaten, either.
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.