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The GOP Is More Serious Than Sarah Palin

In a recent interview, former Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin indicated she was open to leaving the GOP and starting a third party. After expressing her enthusiasm for the name “The Freedom Party,” Palin went on to say this: 

If the GOP continues to back away from the planks in our platform, from the principles that built this party of Lincoln and of Reagan, then yeah, more and more of us are gonna start saying, “You know, what’s wrong with being an independent?” Kind of, with that libertarian streak that much of us have. In other words, we want government to back off and not infringe upon our rights. I think there will be a lot of us who start saying, “GOP, if you abandon us, what–we have nowhere else to go except to become more independent and not enlisted in a, one or the other of the private majority parties that rule in our nation — either a Democrat or a Republican.” Remember these are private parties. And no one forces us to be enlisted in either party.

Let’s begin with this observation: Ms. Palin is a fierce opponent of immigration reform, and any openness by the Republican leadership in the House would move her a good deal closer to abandoning the GOP. Which of course makes her reference to both Lincoln and Reagan odd, since Reagan was an advocate of amnesty and as president granted it to millions of illegal immigrants (“I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” Reagan said in his 1984 debate with Walter Mondale). 

As for Lincoln, in a new biography on him, Rich Lowry points out that “Lincoln was broadly pro-immigration… Clearly, Lincoln’s default position today would be generosity toward immigrants. The effectively permanent status as second-class citizens of millions of illegal immigrants would be anathema to him.” In their tone and substantive approach to legal and illegal immigration, then, people like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are far closer to Reagan and Lincoln than Ms. Palin is.

And what about the broader indictment by Palin, which is that the GOP is moving away from its principles and becoming a less conservative party? That charge–shared by some others on the right–strikes me as rather wide of the mark. After all, in many respects the GOP is becoming more amenable to her brand of Tea Party conservatism than it was in and prior to 2008–when Palin was a proud Republican and the party’s vice presidential pick.

For example, a smaller percentage of GOP senators voted for immigration reform last month than was the case in 2006. Representative Paul Ryan has on several occasions now presented a very serious plan to re-limit government and reform entitlements, especially Medicare–and in doing so he has gone far beyond anything that Ronald Reagan ever proposed. And to the astonishment of many, Ryan secured the support of virtually the entire Republican House. In addition, the GOP has uniformly opposed higher taxes. (Compare this once again to Reagan, who in 1982 signed what at the time was the largest tax increase in American history.) In fact, congressional Republicans have consistently been pushing for tax cuts. They accepted sequester cuts earlier this year, when many on the right predicted they would buckle. House and Senate Republicans have also opposed, almost to a person, the Affordable Care Act, and pushed for its repeal. Republicans voted en masse against the 2009 stimulus package. The GOP remains staunchly pro-life. It has opposed the president’s gun control and climate change agenda. And many Republicans have backed away from a larger federal role in education. Then there are Republican governors, current and recent, many of whom are conservative, successful and reform-oriented. 

Let’s stipulate that no party is perfect, that different currents exist within political parties, and that key figures within them will act in ways with which we disagree. The GOP certainly isn’t fully abiding by my recommendations. That said, where precisely is this great abandonment of principle we’re supposedly seeing? The GOP is in many ways a more conservative party today than it was during the Reagan years.

Several things are happening, I think. One is that some elements within the GOP base are in an agitated mood, spoiling for a fight, eager to make themselves look principled by constantly asserting the GOP is unprincipled. It’s similar to a quarrelsome marriage; every word one spouse says is interpreted in the worst possible light by the other. Sarah Palin and those like her are now disposed to attack the GOP, and perhaps even looking for reasons to break from it. But let’s be clear: It’s being driven by her/their frame of mind, not the heresies of the Republican Party. 

The other thing that is occurring is that Palin and those like her have undergone a fairly dramatic shift in the last few years. One telling example is her reaction to Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency leaks. Palin has gone out of her way to defend Snowden  and asserted that America is “becoming a totalitarian surveillance state.” This is a silly charge–and evidence that Palin has lurched in a much more libertarian direction since she enthusiastically agreed to be John McCain’s running mate in 2008.

It may also be that Palin, having quit after serving less than one term as governor, is simply not very serious about, or even all that interested in, governing. She does seem better suited to compose tweets and star in reality shows than to carry out the duties of governing.

But Ms. Palin is right about this: No one forces us to be enlisted in either party. She is free to leave the GOP at any time, for any reason. And there may be more than a few Republicans who hope she will, if only so that they do not have to spend any more time explaining to the rest of the world why the GOP, for all its shortcomings, is far more serious than Sarah Palin.