The culture war within the conservative movement over Palin will ultimately destroy the movement, and the Republican Party, if both sides don’t come to some sort of an understanding. ~D.R. Tucker

This invests Palin’s candidacy and the reactions to it with far more significance than they deserve.  Assuming McCain loses, which seems likely, the selection of Palin is of limited, temporary importance for the political fortunes of the GOP.  After next month, barring some tremendous changes in the campaign, Palin will return to Alaska and will not become a dominant force in Republican politics nationally.  The reactions to Palin are important insofar as they reflect existing tensions and resentments among conservatives, but Palin serves here mainly as a focus for old arguments over the direction of movement and party.  On one side, you mostly have her critics who are also typically critical of either the pseudo-populism practiced by the GOP for the past several decades or who are critical of the prominence of social issues in Republican rhetoric.  This does not break down neatly, as you have Peggy Noonan, who cannot fairly be described as anything other than pro-life, now describing Palin as an example of “a new vulgarization in American politics,” and Kathleen Parker, an early Palin booster, declaring her “out of her league.”  Quin Hillyer at AmSpec has been shaking his head in disbelief for weeks.  

While there may be other critics who have found the prominent role of social issues in justifying Palin’s selection dissatisfying, it is not accurate to say that all criticism of Palin on the right is simply a matter of Northeast corridor establishmentarians, moderates and pro-choicers scoring points off their old foes.  To the extent that disagreement over Palin does expose existing rifts, the latter are trying to advance their old arguments against the prominence of (pseudo-)populist appeals and a focus on abortion in Republican rhetoric by pointing to Palin as an example of the sort of political mistakes these priorities encourage, but what Palinites seem not to understand is that they are playing into the hands of establishmentarians and pro-choice Republicans by identifying her candidacy as an embodiment of social conservatism.  Insofar as her candidacy is a failure, her admirers have set themselves up to have their views tied to the fate of that candidacy.

Tucker makes an odd claim that wrecks his entire argument:

Conservative unease with Palin has little to do with her educational level or economic class; Rick Santorum is highly-educated and not exactly “working-class”, but he would have generated the same negative heat from the folks who currently dislike Palin had McCain selected him as his running mate.

Actually, educational level and economic class have a great deal to do with it, but more because Palin and her admirers seem to revel in touting both.  Above all, it is her bearing that grates on a lot of her critics.  Quoth Noonan: “She does not speak seriously but attempts to excite sensation….”  Now Santorum would not have been selected because he had just lost his re-election bid in a swing state in a rout and he openly and strenuously opposed McCain during the primaries, but few on the right would say that Santorum did not, on the whole, speak seriously.  Sometimes he was overzealous and perhaps hyperbolic, but if there was anything the matter with Santorum it was rather the grim seriousness he seemed to bring to everything, at least in the final year of his Senate career. 

Let’s imagine for a moment that Santorum was a viable VP choice who had just somehow been re-elected to the Senate and who had not spent much of the presidential campaign speaking out against John McCain as little more than a sell-out.  There is no question that he would have generated the same hostility from the left (and from libertarians), and his foreign policy views would be just as dissatisfying to non-interventionists, but it is undeniable that he would be taken far more seriously by all of Palin’s critics because, whatever one may say against him, he is a significantly more serious figure with a much firmer grasp on policy.  Even his outlandish foreign policy views are views that he has developed; he would not have been fed lines about Venezuela and Russia–he dreaded the Venezuelan “menace” before it was trendy.  He could cite the unorthodox policies he championed from prison reform to foreign debt relief to Africa AIDS programs to pushing for action on Darfur; whether or not one finds his policies worth supporting, he had a record that could be taken seriously.  His public remarks were not simply cookie-cutter, three-legs-of-the-Republican-stool talking points.  As the Brooks column on Santorum from two years ago shows, there was respect for Santorum’s accomplishments that transcended disagreements over social and cultural issues.  Santorum’s choice to make his campaign a referendum on hyper-aggressive foreign policy, which was absolutely crazy in 2006 and would be even more so today, distracted everyone from his genuine strengths and his record of collaborating with members of the other party on his unorthodox agenda.  It would have been impossible to dismiss Santorum as a lightweight, as Brooks noted back in ’06:

His discussion of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, is as sophisticated as anything in Barack Obama’s recent book.   

Considering how highly Brooks regards Obama’s sophistication, that is high praise indeed.  That was the tragedy of Santorum, who went beyond even McCain in making hawkishness and obsessing about alleged foreign threats almost the entirety of his re-election campaign and who failed to emphasize all those elements of his career that made him an impressive Senator.  Santorum would have, incidentally, done far, far more to reinforce McCain’s image as the unorthodox Republican than Palin and her thin record could have ever done, but the combativeness that drove him to fixate on the “gathering storm” that he imagined (and I do mean imagined) was looming on the horizon is same trait that kept pushing him into conflict with McCain and ultimately wore out Pennsylvanian voters’ patience. 

There seems to be an unfortunate, growing tendency among Palinites to assume that her conservative critics must dislike her ultimately because she is pro-life (or religious), which misses all the ways in which she and Santorum, for example, are so profoundly different in terms of qualifications, understanding of policy and preparation for high office.  In fact, I would say that had Santorum somehow still been in office and had not been such a harsh critic of McCain, he would have been the new fusionists’ dream selection, satisfying interventionists and social conservatives equally, and his selection would have driven home how blind the GOP is to the profoundly misguided nature and deep unpopularity of their foreign policy vision.  Even so, what you would not have seen with a McCain/Santorum campaign are attacks from conservative writers and pundits that Santorum was unprepared and clueless.  In recognizing the truth of that the Palinites might learn an important lesson about their favorite candidate.