ALL OVER AMERICA, men of a certain age have been playing a YouTube clip from this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference. It is the two minutes in the middle of the speech by Sarah Palin, the moment when the Alert Alaskan, as the New York Sun insists on calling her (as for us, we call her the pulchritudinous Sarah Palin), interrupts her own discourse on the Second Amendment to say, “Oh, you should’ve seen what Todd got me for Christmas.”
“Well,” she said, as the audience started to chuckle, “it wasn’t that exciting. It’s a metal rack, a case carrying hunting rifles to put on the back of a four-wheeler. And, ah, then I had to get something for him to put into a gun case, right? So this time around, he’s got the rifle and I’ve got the rack.”
The audience got the gag immediately and was already laughing when the governor reached under the podium and brought up a plastic cup of soda in the “Big Gulp” size that the mayor of New York—in the most ridiculous regulation of the year—is trying to ban. When she took a healthy swig, the audience broke into wild cheers and applause, which she was able to quell only by saying, “Oooh, Bloomberg’s not around…”
It was a classic Palin moment, no doubt the first time a governor has gotten up on national television and joked about her own sexuality. She did it with an all-American exuberance, and why not? In the wake of her own defeat for vice president, she has taken to her political bosom a group of astonishingly high-quality candidates and handed them up to high office. She has done so just when the Republican Party needs a new generation of leaders.
This is all the more newsworthy for the fact that she has done so in the face of skepticism that has bordered at times on derision, and even opposition not only from the Democrats—which is to be expected—but from the established leadership of her own party, starting with the mastermind of President Bush’s two campaigns, Karl Rove.
One tally of the feud, put together by New York magazine, dates its beginning to an interview Rove gave the Washington Post in 2008, when he suggested that Senator John McCain’s choice of Palin as a running mate was designed more for politics than for governing. In fairness to Rove, he made the same point, and more so, about Barack Obama’s choice of Senator Joe Biden as his running mate.
Four years later, the feud has boiled into the open, and is watched because it has come to reflect a fissure within the Republican Party. This was noted by Mrs. Palin at the CPAC conference, where she ridiculed what she called the “top-down political process” coming out of Washington. She suggested the professionals just go back to Texas and run for office. Palin didn’t name Rove, but he clearly took the hint, saying that if he did run for office and win, “I would serve out my term.”
This is a point that has been widely made against Palin by both Republicans and Democrats in the years since she quit the governorship in 2009, midway through her term. Yet it is hard to think of anyone in modern political history who has quit such a job only to step into freelance politicking as potently as Palin has.
THAT POINT WAS UNDERSCORED by Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who gave CPAC’s closing speech. He made a surprise early appearance in the hall to introduce Palin and used the moment to remind the conservative faithful that she “jumped in early” and supported Rand Paul, just as she had supported Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, and a South Carolina congressman named Tim Scott—who has just been elevated to the Senate by Governor Nikki Haley, whom Palin had also supported.
“And,” Cruz added, “this last election cycle there were three Republicans who won new seats—Deb Fischer, Jeff Flake, and myself. She supported all three of them. Let me tell you something. I would not be in the U.S. Senate today if it were not for Governor Sarah Palin.”
It was a remarkable testament to the woman who, Cruz noted, drives “bat-crap crazy” a mainstream media that is “absolutely convinced that women cannot be conservative.” Palin, he said, “shakes up their entire worldview.” When he beckoned her onstage, it was to the sounds of Shania Twain singing “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face.”
This would be an old story but for the fact that it is becoming increasingly clear that the winners Sarah Palin plucked from obscurity are now having an enormous impact. “It’s the Rubio and Rand Party, now,” is the way Politico worded the headline over the dispatch last month by its own stars, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen. “Want to know if Republicans finally back immigration reform, stand a chance of picking up Senate seats in the midterms, or get their act together by 2016?” they write. “Instead of the GOP, watch the Rubio-Paul Party.”
They went on to suggest that one could forget Karl Rove and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner. They didn’t mention Palin by name. They didn’t need to. “The real action in the GOP is coming from the newest wing of the party, the one born in the spring of 2009—the offspring of Tea Party activists who almost single-handedly propelled Republicans to control of the House.”
THE PUTATIVE LEADER OF THAT TEA PARTY WING, and certainly its most visible face, is Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He benefitted from Palin’s largesse when the ex-Alaska governor endorsed him in the Republican primary back in 2010 and gave him a large donation through her political action committee. The Kentucky race aligned Palin and Rove against each other. Though Rove never outright endorsed Trey Grayson, Paul’s opponent from the GOP establishment, he did write that the Kentucky race “causes the GOP squeamishness.” Paul, Sarah’s pick, would go on to defeat Grayson in the primary and win the general election.
In March, Paul captured the news cycle for the better part of a week when he launched a quixotic filibuster against the Obama administration’s promiscuous use of drones. Many lawmakers on the left and right had complained about drone policy; Paul actually did something about it. In doing so, he forced a missive of surrender out of Attorney General Eric Holder and called attention to the issue of constitutional liberty.
Not every Republican was pleased with Paul’s audacity. John McCain took to the Senate floor to gripe about Paul putting checks on military power, with an assist from his Sancho Panza, Senator Lindsay Graham. McCain’s rant did nothing to damage Paul. But it did serve as a helpful reminder of the new dichotomy taking shape in the GOP. The Tea Party—Palin’s boys, Senators Paul and Cruz and Mike Lee and Ron Johnson and Tim Scott on one side; the old guard—McCain and Graham and various ex-Bushies—on the other.
Rove had already done his part to emblazon this division by starting the Conservative Victory Project, an initiative with the Orwellian task of preventing conservative victories in primaries. It was an overt attempt by Rove to position himself as a political kingmaker in the way that Palin had done in 2010, but in support of moderates and backed by buckets of money. The project has somewhat backfired. Congressman Steve King, a flamboyantly conservative Senate candidate in Iowa and one of Rove’s primary targets, is fundraising off of attacks on Rove. Iowa’s Republican governor has since told Rove to stay out of the race.
Palin’s candidates, it would seem, are ascendant, while the so-called Republican establishment is rushing to catch up.
BUT IT'S MORE THAN JUST POLITICAL SUCCESS that separates the new crowd from the old; it’s also philosophy. The most comfortable explanation for this, recited by many in the media, is that right-wing extremists are taking over the Republican Party. This formulation is delusional. Rand Paul is charting a moderate, third-way course on foreign policy. Marco Rubio supports comprehensive immigration reform, derided by many critics as amnesty. Paul and Mike Lee battled the National Defense Authorization Act, which gives the government significant power to detain American citizens, and which would have passed with broad Republican support during the Bush administration.
Those who raise caution over civil liberties and want a less idealistic foreign policy cannot be dismissed as wild-eyed wingnuts, nor can they be pigeonholed as neoconservatives, or paleoconservatives, or even libertarians. What they represent instead is a flavor of conservatism that is relatively new to this generation of Republicans, one that adheres to the Constitution, sees reducing government as its first priority, supports economic liberty, is worried about privacy, and believes federalism is needed to restore power to states and localities.
These views are often dismissed by the old guard as radical—and in some ways, they are. Before Palin and the Tea Party’s ascendance, the GOP had, in many ways, made peace with the modern state. President Bush popularized the paradigm: Rather than seek to devolve or eliminate federal power, conservatives would now harness it to achieve their ends. Thus emerged No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D; ratcheted spending and regulations; endless deficits and debt. As Bush said, “When someone is hurting, government has got to move.”
That’s compassionate conservatism, and ever since the paint-peeling hangover of 2008, the right has been stepping back from it. They’ve settled instead on Palin’s alternative, a philosophy that might be called constitutional conservatism. It’s a term that Palin herself frequently uses: “I label myself a commonsense constitutional conservative,” she has said.
THERE CAN BE LITTLE DOUBT that Palin has influenced the direction of contemporary conservatism. But then again, her critics rarely deny that. Instead their charge is that Palin is a poor kingmaker who has done more electoral harm than good, and therefore constitutional conservatism, if advertised too brashly, is a ballot box loser. That critique, along with the left’s fulgurating hatred and several missteps on her part, has sidelined Palin. She was recently fired from her position as a Fox News contributor. Her 2012 endorsements garnered less attention than in 2010.
Palin’s critics have left their mark. But do they have a point?
Her heavyweight status in 2010 is undeniable. Of the 64 candidates Palin endorsed for House, Senate, and governor, 54 won their primaries; of those, 33 won their general elections. Palin’s critics argue that the losers matter—and especially in the Senate, since among them were Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle, both of whom knocked off establishment candidates in their primaries and subsequently lost their general elections. Had the establishmentarians won, these seats would have gone Republican and the GOP would have taken back the Senate.
Palin’s critics, then, hold her to a different standard than any other politico: She’s expected to have a 100 percent success rate, at least on the Senate side. (Imagine if such an expectation had been applied to Bob Shrum!) It’s true that a few of Palin’s picks—O’Donnell, Angle, and Miller among them—have ended badly. But her Senate winners—Paul, Cruz, Lee, Ayotte, Toomey, Rubio—are responsible for most of the intellectual ferment in the chamber today.
Try to imagine this scenario:
It’s a snow day in Washington and one senator has had enough. He just learned that Attorney General Eric Holder refused to rule out killing American citizens on U.S. soil with drone strikes. Incensed, Senator Trey Grayson of Kentucky takes to the Senate floor and filibusters the president’s CIA nominee for 13 hours, delivering a wide-ranging professorial lecture that touches on everything from constitutional law to Alice in Wonderland. Several hours in, Grayson is joined triumphantly by Senators David Dewhurst of Texas and Bob Bennett of Utah. Later that night, the majority leader walks in and offers his support. The political tectonics have shifted.
It’s easier to surmise the Obama administration proposing a tax cut aimed exclusively at oil barons than it is to imagine the above. Yet the GOP establishment supported Grayson over Rand Paul, Dewhurst over Ted Cruz, Bennett over Mike Lee. Had Palin’s candidates not prevailed, had constitutional conservatism not won at the ballot box in 2010, that energy in the Senate wouldn’t exist.
PALIN'S DONE A LOT OF DAMAGE to herself since then. She recently aired a commercial for her political action committee, SarahPAC, that attacked political consultants, even though the PAC itself spent 94 percent of its funds on those same consultants in 2012. Her visibility has hurt her too, as headlines diagnose a country sick of “Palin fatigue.” Polls find sizable majorities of Republicans don’t want her to run for president.
That might be what happens when you flood the media market and try to establish yourself as a cultural force. Palin’s attempts to cross over into popular entertainment—most notably her reality show Sarah Palin’s Alaska, which was canceled after one season—have mostly been a failure.
But her political success endures. With the possible exception of Ron Paul, no political figure has done as much to sculpt the GOP’s new constitutional conservatism as Sarah Palin. Rand, Rubio, Cruz…we think it’s safe to say most Republicans would kill to have a rack like that.