The Politico story on Palin quoted Pete Wehner invoking the GOP as the “party of ideas.” I argued that the modern GOP can’t seriously claim to be the “party of ideas” anymore, because it relies so heavily on slogans and talking points in lieu of policy arguments. That was my main criticism of Wehner and the others quoted in the article. My objection to Wehner’s remarks was that he was pretending that there was some great intellectual vitality in the mainstream right that Palin put in jeopardy. Naturally, he skips past all of this and notes that he started criticizing Palin in mid-2009. Fair enough. Wehner isn’t one of the latecomers to criticizing Palin to which I was referring, and I’m happy to acknowledge it. I should have been more careful before claiming that his criticism was belated. I wrote, “Their concern would be interesting if it weren’t so belated and narrowly focused on Palin.” Wehner has demonstrated that I was wrong that his concern was belated, but it does still seem to be narrowly focused on Palin. If Wehner is critiquing the intellectual weakness of the right beyond Palin, that’s welcome news, but I haven’t seen that.
In the criticism he made in 2009, Wehner frames his argument against Palin explicitly in terms of her effect on the Republican Party’s future political fortunes. One of his main criticisms of Palin’s lack of intellectual depth was that it would doom the GOP to minority status if she became the public face of the party. That might be right, but it doesn’t take into account that the intellectual weakness of the mainstream right is a significant problem that goes beyond the influence of Palin and her enthusiasts. Wehner wrote in 2009 that the GOP’s revival depends on “emerging public figures who are conservative and principled, who radiate intellectual depth and calmness of purpose, who come across as irenic rather than agitated, competent and reliable rather than erratic and uneven.” Does Wehner believe that such figures exist in the modern GOP? More to the point, does he believe that such figures have a reasonable chance of leading the party?
I don’t deny that one can find individual mainstream conservative writers occasionally directing criticisms at Palin from the moment she was selected. It’s also true that they have become much more numerous and much more vocal since the midterms, because it has become more politically acceptable on the right to attack Palin now that she is less useful. As a general statement, what I said about the way movement conservative “institutions, magazines, and leaders” treated Palin up until the midterms was true. It doesn’t seem to me that I am ascribing cynical motives to those who have only just recently acknowledged that Palin is a political liability for their cause. I am observing their political cynicism in action.
Update: To follow up on Andrew’s comments, the issue is not so much when individual conservatives spoke out against her as their stated reasons for criticizing her. One could object to Palin in 2009 or later for narrowly political reasons that she presented a threat to Republican electoral success, or one could object to her nomination in 2008 because she was woefully unqualified. As long as Palin was useful in generating enthusiasm for the 2008 ticket and fired up the post-election opposition, her numerous flaws were overlooked or zealously denied. Some people abandoned this denial response sooner than others, but for the vast majority of conservatives, intellectuals or otherwise, this was their first reaction when confronted with Palin’s flaws. It’s a bit rich to claim now that these political concerns have become secondary to concern for the intellectual integrity of the Republican Party, not least since there was no evidence of concern for this during the Bush era.