In the less than two weeks since she was introduced as John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin has become a political sensation.
She has united the Republican base behind McCain’s candidacy in a way that few could have predicted. She has energized conservatives. She’s attracted more than 15,000 to rallies. And her speech to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last week has prompted comparisons to Ronald Reagan.
With all due respect to the governor of Alaska, are conservatives getting ahead of themselves?
For months, conservatives have mocked the celebrity appeal of Barack Obama, but now they are flocking to Palin in a similar manner. Just as liberals swooned for Obama because his biography appealed to their cultural sensibilities, conservatives instinctively identify with Palin, because, as Cindy McCain put it, she is a “reform-minded, hockey-mommin’, basketball shootin’, moose huntin’, fly-fishin’, pistol-packing, mother of five.”
The outrageous attacks on her family, the absurd lies that have been spread (such as that she banned books from the library as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska), and the undermining of her genuine accomplishments have produced an understandable circle-the-wagons reaction on the part of conservatives.
Like most conservatives, I am moved by her life-affirming decision to give birth to a child with Down syndrome and impressed by her successes in taking on the corrupt elements of the Republican Party in Alaska.
The trouble is, there’s a lot that we still don’t know about Palin, and conservatives shouldn’t be jumping the gun.
Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) told the Hill that the “last Republican to enter the national stage with such impressive force was Ronald Reagan in 1964, with his ‘A Time for Choosing’ speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater.”
There’s no doubt that Palin displayed a natural’s touch when speaking to the convention last Wednesday. She made a strong argument for the Republican ticket being one of true reformers, exuded a sunny American optimism and authenticity, skewered her opponents with a smile on her face, and made a stirring case for McCain as commander in chief.
But Reagan’s 1964 speech still holds up 44 years later because it makes a timeless argument against statism at home and abroad that is deeply rooted in conservative thought about limiting government.
“‘T]he full power of centralized government,’ — was the very thing the Founding Fathers sought to minimize,” Reagan said in his landmark speech. “They knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy.”
It’s not meant as an insult to note that nothing in Palin’s speech similarly communicates her understanding of conservative political philosophy.
Many conservatives assume that because they connect with Palin and she strikes the right chords on many issues that she must be agree with them on everything else. But conservatives made a similar assumption with President Bush, only to be disappointed when “compassionate conservatism” became code words for big government, and he gave us No Child Left Behind and the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug plan. Have conservatives considered what Palin thinks of these pieces of legislation?
When Palin says, as she has repeatedly, that she entered politics to “serve the common good,” what does she mean by that? It could be benign, but it’s also a phrase that has been used to justify the expansion of government throughout modern history.
Palin says that, like McCain, she’s a reformer who has fought wasteful spending and corruption. But in McCain’s case, reform has not always been consistent with small government conservatism. In fact, his signature legislative accomplishment involved restricting speech under the guise of rooting out corruption and taking money out of politics. Would Palin also be willing to regulate personal freedoms in the name of reform? At this point, we don’t know.
For eight years, the right has had to endure a Republican president who hasn’t governed as a conservative and party leaders in Congress who were corrupted by power and became addicted to spending. In this election, conservatives are facing a choice between an extremely liberal freshman senator and a Republican nominee they don’t consider one of their own. So it’s quite understandable that they would be eager to embrace the charismatic Palin as the future of the Republican Party.
But conservatives shouldn’t fall into the trap of the instant celebrity culture by creating an idealized portrait before we learn more about her record and governing philosophy.
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