We may not be sure of Sarah Palin’s ability to assume a political office of national scope, but we can be certain she is polarizing. Obviously there is a gap between left and right, but, interestingly, the conservative commentariat itself is deeply divided. Even within the Weekly Standard crowd, Palin inspires vastly diverging reactions. Matthew Continetti has emerged as a Palin stalwart, while both David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer have taken to criticizing her regularly. The standard reproach against Palin is that she is toxic to the GOP’s brand among independents and unfit for higher office. At the same time, she is consistently popular with the movement Sean Scallon aptly calls “Conservative, Inc.” Palin’s strength within this political subset is that she is a symbol of defiance. That allure is powerful enough that it does not really matter that her policy knowledge or record of governance leave much to be desired. She grappled with the mainstream media and now criticizes the Republican establishment, creating for herself an image as a stalwart defender of fly-over country values. (Rod Dreher refers to this as “selling personality, not a platform.”)
We can see that the same paradigm is at work with Reagan or Bush II. Reagan may have actually signed significant tax increases throughout his presidency, but that was ultimately irrelevant to his iconic status as a fiscal conservative. Bush II’s popularity amongst conservatives can be explained in a similar manner. No scandal or setback seemed to faze many of his backers, who admired him as a symbol of intransigence, a quality he was careful to cultivate. Of course, now that the conservative movement has no need of Bush as a symbol to rally around, it has become de rigueur to criticize Bush’s heresies.
The electoral drawback to being a symbol is that you often appeal only to a particular segment of the population. The point here is not that the solution to the GOP’s woes are more moderate candidates but that relying on a kind of mythology or celebrity to carry your political fortunes is a sign of weakness, not strength. We see this shortsightedness in the insistence that a successful Republican Party must channel Reagan at every turn. If we repeat Reaganesque platitudes often and skillfully enough, the thinking goes, there will be another 1984 landslide. But Reagan’s appeal as a conservative only got him halfway to success; his image as pragmatic and competent — especially in comparison to the disasters that were Carter and Mondale — won the day.
One can bemoan that fact that people are drawn to inadequate candidates on account of their image, but this phenomenon is something to which few of us — on the left, right, or center — can claim to be immune. After all, Obama himself owes much of his success to the fact that he was a larger-than-life, and ultimately unreal, symbol of a new America. The media culture of modern America simply does not lend itself to careful, thoughtful debate. We get snippets, shorter and shorter it seems, from our public figures. Those who can pack a punch in those few seconds win out. No surprise then that simplistic and catchy rhetoric rules the day. Sarah Palin has mastered that art — limited though her success ultimately is — but we can hardly fault her for the existence of a political culture that seeks out figures like her.