The Palin Equation
posted at 11:47 am on December 9, 2009 by CK MacLeod
[ Politicians ] printer-friendly
For those struggling to grasp the phenomenom of Sarah Palin, and to determine the potential of Palinism, I submit the following equation:
I begin my proof by observing a smart review of Going Rogue, one you might not have expected to read under the New York Times logo, even in on-line only content. Offering an appreciation of Sarah Palin as an American character, veteran cultural observer Stanley Fish focuses on the book’s central motif of Palin running:
In the end, perseverance, the ability to absorb defeat without falling into defeatism, is the key to Palin’s character. It’s what makes her run in both senses of the word and it is no accident that the physical act of running is throughout the book the metaphor for joy and real life.After playing with the metaphor for a paragraph or two, Fish concludes on a note perhaps less familiar to a Times readership than to typical conservatives:
The message is clear. America can’t be stopped. I can’t be stopped. I’ve stumbled and fallen, but I always get up and run again. Her political opponents, especially those who dismissed Ronald Reagan before he was elected, should take note. Wherever you are, you better watch out. Sarah Palin is coming to town.The manner in which the underestimation, indeed the compulsive derision of Sarah Palin enhances the effect of her successes has been clear to non-Alaskan conservatives at least since her all-eyes-upon-her performance at the Republican National Convention of 2008. The comparison of Palin to Reagan is also familiar on the right. In Fish’s review, it comes across as wholly complimentary on the surface, because it’s explicitly cautionary for liberals, but it may betray Fish’s own partisan bias, since to him as for many liberal historians, Reagan and Reaganism were more symbol than substance, the deceptive offer of a pleasant dream that obscured a deeply flawed reality.
Even if the comparison can be seen in different ways, few Palin supporters will rush to disavow it. Most will prefer to bank it. As for Palin herself, she has directly aligned herself with Reagan, as a fervent admirer and as a would-be heir to his political legacy. When recent interviews have turned to economics, she speaks as a true believer in Reaganomics in statements that could be boiled down to “I’m in favor of what worked in the ’80s” – her main innovation being her emphasis on energy independence, a topic which in an odd historical turn had dominated American politics in the ’70s, but had all but disappeared by the time Reagan was inaugurated. When questioned in relation to national security, she is fond of quoting Reagan directly, deploying a statement of firm resolve that Reagan first proposed as an alternative to Détente, in discussion with his future National Security Adviser: “How about this? We win, they lose.”
WWTL captures the difference between Reagan and virtually the entirety of the foreign policy establishment of his day. For Palin, it underlines the contrast between her and our current president, a man who seems as put off by the word “victory” as Richard Nixon was by the word “love,” but its larger purpose is to associate what she offers – an indomitable and indefatigable American character in support of conservative orthodoxy – with what for large numbers of Americans stands as the last heroic period in our history.
You can be sympathetic to this view and still recognize it as a gross over-simplification. A Palinist might respond that simplicity would be far preferable to the complications fetishized by those who imagine that intellectualism – or, say, “smart power” – can ever be a good substitute for “common sense,” another favorite rhetorical reference point for Palin and other populists. And the Palinist might even be right, or more right than wrong: Common sense seems a lot simpler than technocracy, and is therefore quite consistent with a politics of smaller/limited human scale government. It perfectly suits the suspicions and the aspirations of armies of self-styled outsiders who believe that the federal government has expanded way beyond utility, and way beyond the best interests of the nation.
Yet this simplicity also recalls the image of Reagan advanced by his political enemies, of the “amiable dunce” who somehow bumbled his way to economic recovery, a second term, and the defeat of the Evil Empire. It’s how liberals wanted to see him, but their own political suffering at his hands – along with Reagan’s own letters and diaries and the testimony of those at the center of events – suggest a figure arguably closer to “The Real Ronald Reagan” of Phil Hartman’s iconic SNL skit, in which Reagan the folksy oaf turns into Reagan the polymath mastermind as soon as whatever reporter or other visitor has left him to his complex devices. The point isn’t that Reagan was, secretly, able to solve complex mathematical equations in his head, or some such, but that he was, as Steven Hayward emphasizes in his recently published second volume on The Age of Reagan, “one of the best-prepared men ever to become president.”
As Hayward details, by the time Reagan was elected, in addition to having been governor of the nation’s richest and most populous state, he had been active in national public affairs for thirty years, and had already run for president twice (seriously in 1976, half-heartedly in 1968). With this context in mind, it may be easier to understand why some keepers of the Reaganite flame – including Hayward, though not including Reagan’s son Michael – have resisted the idea that Sarah is our Ron. For all of Palin’s assets as a politician, and even stipulating that she draws upon much deeper and broader qualifications than her detractors acknowledge, she’s still a comparative newcomer on the national stage. In addition to being much younger than Ronald Reagan was in 1980, she lacks anything remotely approaching his political and intellectual track record and his extensive network of supporters and advisers. It’s no insult to Palin to suggest that she suffers by comparison to Reagan in this respect, just as it’s no great compliment to suggest that she’s better-qualified than our current president was on the day he took office.
There is also nothing in Reagan’s biography that compares to Palin’s resignation of the Alaska governorship, a move that I for one supported, but which I believe must tend to heighten insecurity about her among many voters. I further have to wonder whether it’s a factor that will loom larger under the very conditions – a failed Obama presidency – that would make a successful run by Palin as early as 2012 thinkable. Even assuming that Palin can politically overcome questions raised by her resignation, or under an outsider’s banner even turn it into a net positive (conceivable, not necessarily likely), it may further reinforce an even more important question: What are the chances that a Palin presidency would be successful? If she couldn’t gain sufficient support from the Alaskan legislature to revise the flawed ethics reforms that she had originally sponsored, but were being used to destroy her governorship and inhibit her rise to national prominence, what would her chances be with the US Congress and the national political and media establishment?
It’s a contingency worth anticipating for anyone considering an outsider run for the presidency, for Palin’s relative political isolation, made evident in her ethics law problems, is a familiar end state for outsider executives, at all levels of government and in other realms of life, too. It’s one of the oldest political, social, and religious stories. There’s a rightwing populist notion that the political equivalent of a neutron bomb, neutralizing the inhabitants but leaving the physical structures intact, would be better than liberal government, but a president with few political allies might very likely be overwhelmed by the permanent government whose customary practices and perquisites are deeply entrenched and well-defended.
Not that Palin has put herself forward as a bomb-thrower or negativist: She has clearly and repeatedly enunciated the outlines of a positive program – energy independence, national security, fiscal restraint, small government, local control. With the exception of the first point (as observed, energy was in effect a side issue for Reagan), the platform is pure Reaganism. It is therefore all the more worth recalling that, for all of Reagan’s skills and despite his elevated historical status, the Reagan Revolution lasted for only a brief moment in political time before even Reagan was forced to play defense, with his most effective opponents including the “tax collectors for the welfare state” in his own party. Reagan lowered tax rates, reduced regulation, and offered critical protection and political backstopping while Fed Chairman Volcker administered harsh fiscal medicine – but major elements of his domestic agenda were all stalled by 1982, never to be revived, something that movement conservatives of the time noted in despair.
Hayward’s biography persuasively suggests that Reagan’s greatness, or anyway his greatest contribution, on the domestic side was in breaking the ideological stranglehold that liberalism had held on political discourse for 50 years. He set new terms for our national political conversation – no small feat – and that also means we do not need to start where he did. If Palinism is going to matter as more than a political-cultural footnote, whether or not it proceeds under that name and with Palin herself in the lead, it cannot function as a re-play of the Reagan Revolution: Palin is not Reagan, and, in part thanks to Reagan’s contribution, the correlation of political forces today and prospectively is much different than what Reagan faced upon taking office.
This set of facts brings us back to our present moment and its uncertainties, and to my formula. What it’s meant to express is this: For Palin or any Palinist not just to run and win, but to succeed, she will need a congress and a country much readier than the congress and the country of Reagan’s time to implement a Reaganist agenda.