Conservative intellectuals and pundits are old hands when it comes to being at odds with grassroots America. Whether it was William F. Buckley's opposition to the War in Iraq, Milton Friedman's championing of legalized marijuana or Heather Mac Donald's defense of atheism, conservative writers and thinkers have been unafraid to take unpopular stands even if it means thumbing their nose at the home crowd.
A few of them were at it again this week. Exhibit A is the recent criticism of soon-to-be former Gov. Sarah Palin. The Los Angeles Times noted that while Palin remained the darling of the Republican base, many conservative pundits harbored reservations about her qualifications for the nation's highest office, a charge echoed by Bill Kristol in the Washington Post. "[M]any of my friends in … the Republican establishment…tend not only to dislike and disdain Palin, they also want to bury her chances now as a presidential possibility. What are they so scared of?"
What indeed? A constant theme seems to be that Gov. Palin is simply not the man or woman to rebuild the party. Conservative intellectuals are wary of populists like Palin, skilled at waving and winking, but seemingly lacking intellectual heft, and after eight years defending George W. Bush's intellectual prowess who can blame them? What's more, they remember the apprehension many on the right felt as Palin went into her debate with Joe Biden, hoping only that she would not embarrass the party. She didn't, but that is hardly a recommendation.
The Times' piece quoted several "Republican strategists" who had remained silent during the 2008 campaign due to their reluctance to violate Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment: Though Shall Not Speak Ill of Any Other Republican. It seems Reagan's commandment has been repealed. Perhaps more important, conservative intellectuals are speaking out. George Will was one of the first to express serious doubts about Palin, particularly her inexperience--experience being the Founding Fathers' foremost criteria for leadership. Will acknowledged that Palin was the most conservative of the four candidates for national office (McCain, Palin, Obama, Biden), but he remained unimpressed:
Among the four candidates…perhaps only Palin might give a Madisonian answer -- one cognizant of the idea that the federal government's powers are limited because they are enumerated -- if asked to identify any provision of the Constitution, other than the First Amendment, that imposes meaningful limits on congressional or executive authority to act…. But is there any evidence that she has thought about such matters?
Will was writing during the final weeks of the 2008 campaign. Now other conservative intellectuals are beginning to speak out. To Peggy Noonan, Palin is something of a drama queen who "makes the party look stupid, a party of the easily manipulated." She is a "ponder-free zone," who wasn't "thoughtful enough to know she wasn't thoughtful enough." Palin is a casualty of the self-esteem movement which raised an entire generation with no proper sense of its own inadequacy. She "couldn't say what she read because she didn't read anything." Worse she took the American tradition of anti-intellectualism to a whole new level. Conservatives once mocked Dan Quayle because he said it was "hard get through The American Spectator," but at least he tried. Palin couldn't even come up with the name of a single magazine she had read. Not even Field and Stream.
David Frum expressed a fear that a Palin candidacy would lead the GOP into "a 1964-style debacle, accompanied by unnecessary losses down the ballot…[H]er core group of supporters excuse everything on the grounds that she is a social conservative martyr, scorned by her cultural betters."
Veteran GOP ad man Mike Murphy told the LA Times that Palin's popularity rests entirely on the shaky foundation of her looks, which, at her age, are bound to go soon. "If Sarah Palin looked like Golda Meir, would we even be talking about her today?" GOP strategist Peter Wehner, once an admirer, has had a change of heart. "[E]ven those of us who were disposed to like her cannot deny that her public appearances have generally ranged from mediocre to awful. She's had more than a handful of chances to show her stuff; what we've seen has not been reassuring, and at times alarming."
Not all conservatives are so eager to dismiss Palin. Bill Kristol is keeping at least one foot in the Palin camp, insisting that she has been treated unfairly, a victim of the liberal media. Maybe, but since when do conservatives play the victim card?
CONSERVATIVE INTELLECTUALS have been long concerned about the populist drift of the GOP, a movement that began in the 1960s with the Southern Strategy. The stratagem has worked wonders at the ballot box as the GOP has to a large extent shaken off its reputation as the party of cigar smoking fat cats, while reinventing itself as the party of NASCAR America. Indeed it is now the Clintons and the Obamas who are seen as Ivy League elitist snobs. And yet many conservatives are uneasy with this state of affairs, particularly when it gives rise to populist politicians.
Palin's defenders might point out that John Quincy Adams was the most qualified, and far and away the most intelligent president in American history, and yet his presidency was remarkably unproductive. (James Buchanan is also said to have been the most qualified president, and is consistently ranked one of the worst presidents in American history.) Adams was unable to get his programs passed by congress and was decisively voted out of office in favor of the backwoods military hero Andrew Jackson.
Palin's supporters are right about another thing: experience alone is not enough. What else is needed, writes George Will, are the three C's: character, common sense, and constitutional sense. Charisma, which Palin clearly has in spades, is notably not one of the three C's.
Incredibly Palin's resignation as Alaska governor actually boosted her standing among the Republican base, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll. This hints at what some conservative pundits have feared, that her supporters are not only fervent, but fervent to the point of irrationality. They seem to believe that the more Palin is hated and attacked the better leader she will be. But the simple fact that the mainstream media dislikes Palin is no reason to support her for president. The GOP base might do well to remember that the great populist William Jennings Bryan failed to win the presidency for the Democrats three times. Popular as Bryan was, the majority of Americans still did not want him running the country.