The 19th century American writer Henry Adams said the descent of American presidents from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant was enough to discredit the theory of evolution. The same could be said of the pantheon of conservative political heroes, which in the last half-century has gone from Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to Sarah Palin. That refutation may be agreeable to Palin, who doesn’t put much stock in Darwin anyway.
You can confirm all this by looking at what the three wrote. Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, made his reputation four years earlier with an eloquent and intellectually coherent volume, The Conscience of a Conservative, which laid out a blueprint for the policies he favored.
Reagan likewise made the thinking person’s case for conservatism. Between 1975 and 1979, after he had finished two terms as governor of California, he did some 1,000 radio commentaries, most of which he wrote himself. They were later collected in Reagan, In His Own Hand, which provides the texts of his handwritten manuscripts and proves that, far from being the “amiable dunce” of liberal mythology, he thought hard and clearly about the issues of his time.
Palin? Her new memoir, Going Rogue, fills up 413 pages, but it has less policy heft than a student council speech. Where Reagan dove into the murk of arms control and Goldwater fathomed federal farm programs, Palin skims over the surface of a puddle.
Amid all the tales of savoring the aromas at the state fair and having her wardrobe vetted by snotty campaign staffers, she sets aside space to lay out her vision of what it means to be a “Commonsense Conservative.” It takes up all of 11 pages and leans heavily on prefabricated lines like “I am a conservative because I deal with the world as it is” and “If you want real job growth, cut capital gains taxes.”
Can we say it now please? All together: Sarah Palin is not Ronald Reagan.
It is an insult to the man to even hint at a comparison. Where Reagan used his gifts of communication to inspire his audience, Palin uses her considerable ability to connect emotionally with people to breed anger and resentment. Where Reagan was a veritable font of ideas, Palin is a pale echo of dozens of conservative pundits who rely on talking points and tired, cliched, 1980s-era solutions to our problems.
Reagan had a nimble mind and enjoyed jousting with the press, rarely complaining about the unfair treatment he received and, in fact, turning the tables on his adversaries by using self-deprecating humor to make them appear small and petty. Palin, while certainly having cause for complaint, nevertheless acts more like an aggrieved, whiny child who rails against the unfairness of it all.
I have written before of the self-defeating impulse of conservatives to try and anoint some personality as the “next Reagan” — or worse, to try and graft his ideas from 1980 onto solutions that would address our problems today.
Reagan is gone, and what we have is his legacy — a complicated mix of good and bad for which historians will be arguing over for decades to come. Palin and many of her supporters are stuck in this past, unable or unwilling to comprehend the basic reality that the world, America, and time itself have moved on, making whatever Reagan wanted or believed in the 1980s virtually irrelevant to where we are today and, more importantly, where we are headed in the future.
Palin is the anti-Reagan in this and many other respects. Where the Gipper had one eye on the past while trying to look over the next hill into the future, Palin and many of her supporters hold on to the past for dear life as the future rolls up to meet us. I believe this to be her basic attraction to so many conservatives. She offers a comfortable place for those who are so inclined to ignore the verity of the present and who, quite rightly, fear the future. The soothing yet empty bromides, the hackneyed and cliched talking points, and the familiar responses to America’s problems are indicative of a mind incapable of expanding to meet new challenges and new opportunities.
Is that a gratuitous slap? In an otherwise glowing defense of Sarah Palin, PJM’s Victor Davis Hanson has this to say:
Palin must have at her fingertips far more elucidating answers than offered by any liberal icon — or what she showed in the 2008 campaign. If Sarah Palin thinks FDR was President in 1929, or that he could speak on non-existent TV, she is through; if Biden says that, it’s “just old Joe again.” If Obama does not know the first thing about our most prestigious medals, the language of Austria, or diplomatic protocol about presidential bowing, it’s because he is deliberately trying to be cool; if Palin did the same, she’s a buffoon hockey mom. That is the way it is, and her supporters should accept it, deal with, and overcome it.
In other words, Palinites should assume that there is no margin of error for her at all. Like it or not, she must, like Reagan, not only communicate, but also be able to draw on abstract concepts about conservatism. It does no good to say the media is biased, or to review the talking points offered above. She must be better than, not as good as, mainstream Democratic and Republican candidates in matters of foreign policy, gottacha recall, and talking points on health care, taxes, etc. Specificity, detail, and exactness, not generalities or whines about an unfair press, will make her a serious candidate.
The best thing she can do is to go out and talk, take her licks, promote her book, fend off foes, and gain experience in the arena of ideas — while spending her evenings reading and debating wonks and politicians. The marketplace of politics then will decide her fate, not pundits or political insiders. If she swims in the next year, she’s on her way; if she sinks, she will recede from our memory.
Please read those last two paragraphs by Hanson very carefully. It is, of course, unfair that Palin must be better than the rest in order to succeed. But as Hanson points out, this is pretty much the burden that must be borne by any conservative who wishes to jump into the national limelight. There are sharks in those waters ready to attack anyone on the right who dares to challenge liberal orthodoxy and present the conservative case to the public.
But even Hanson recognizes where she is right now. It has been a year since she burst onto the national scene and she has done little to rectify the huge gaps in knowledge and nuance that exposed her as an intellectually unserious person during the campaign. And by that I mean simply that she has failed to apply herself in any meaningful way to the process of learning what she needs to know in order to become a successful politician. Not an academic. Not a pointy-headed elite at some think tank, but rather a thoughtful citizen of the republic who knows enough about the issues facing America to serve effectively.
Until she proves me wrong, I will continue to celebrate her as a cotton candy conservative with no more heft than the confection’s wispy strands of caramelized sugar that look so delightful but have little taste beyond a vague, sickly sweetness.