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Why All This Fuss Over Sarah Palin?

For someone who is closely involved in politics, I guess I am a rarity: I don’t find Sarah Palin to be particularly interesting. I will be surprised if she runs for the GOP nomination in 2012; I would be more surprised if she wins it; and I would be shocked if she won the presidency. I have written before about why I don’t think she is the future of the GOP, including the fact that rebuilding its reputation depends on emerging public figures who are conservative and principled, who radiate intellectual depth and calmness of purpose. Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Mitch Daniels, and former Governor Jeb Bush are the kinds of figures we need, and the campaign by Governor-elect Bob McDonnell are the kind Republicans should run.

With that said, the degree to which Palin evokes fury, contempt, and anger among her critics is nothing short of amazing. It is visceral and almost clinical. And it cannot be based on what she has done (which as governor of Alaska is fairly limited and not terribly controversial), on the views she holds (which are mainstream conservative), or on her relative lack of experience when McCain picked her as his vice-presidential choice (Palin’s experience was comparable to Barack Obama’s, who after all was running for president). What explains the fierce reaction to her is, in part, I think, her affect, the way she talks (and winks), the background she has emerged from, the populism she seems to embody. Palinism, as I understand it, is less a coherent philosophy or set of ideas and more an attitude and spirit. In that sense, she is a cultural figure much more than a political one.

If you believe, as I do, that the GOP once again needs to become the “party of ideas” — as it did under Ronald Reagan — then Palin is not the solution to what ails it. At this stage, based on the interviews I have seen with her, she doesn’t seem able to articulate the case for conservatism in a manner that is compelling or even particularly persuasive. She is nothing like, to take three individuals I would hold up as public models, Margaret Thatcher, William Bennett, and Antonin Scalia — people brimming with ideas, knowledgeable and formidable, intellectually well-grounded, and impossible to dismiss. That, of course, doesn’t mean that Palin doesn’t have a role to play in the Republican party or contributions to make to it. And what Palin has revealed about some of her critics is, in the words of my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, “the unfortunate and unattractive propensity of the American cultural elite to treat those who are not deemed part of the elect with condescension and contumely.”

The intensity of feelings Sarah Palin evokes from almost all sides is remarkable — and for me, a bit puzzling. I don’t think she has earned either adoration or contempt. But as we’re seeing, she elicits plenty of both.


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