I’ve been reading about Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon for the past few months, which also means I’ve been reading about the young, dumb Ronald Reagan. Over that time, I’ve been trying to figure out which of those three monsters of American Politics Sarah Palin most resembles. Now, as more and more liberal bloggers argue that if she runs for president in 2012 she’ll be the GOP’s candidate — and others argue there’s no way she won’t run — let’s nail it down. Is she the Pure-At-Heart Brinksman (Goldwater), the Resentful Dirty Trickster (Nixon), or is she the most dangerous of all, the Good-Looking, Dim-Witted Full Package (Reagan)?
Well, what makes Palin such a unique political creature is that, in some ways, she’s all of the above. Where Goldwater appealed to Southern segregationists, Sarah Palin appeals to a “Real America,” properly defined by Gawker as, “code for white, conservative people who dwell within 49 of the 50 United States (Hawaii is suspicious), but preferably away from the coasts.” Where Nixon would sink to any level to smear a political opponent, Palin has “palling around with terrorists,” “death panels,” and appearances with the nuttiest elements of the GOP. And, where Ronald Reagan made all that hate and divisiveness look good, Sarah Palin has, well, Sarah Palin.
In other ways she’s none of them, though. Goldwater himself was nowhere near the racist his most rabid followers were, though Palin herself often seems to be the source of the froth around her. Nixon was relentlessly ambitious, and Palin resigned as governor half-way through her first term. Ronald Reagan was not just a pretty face but a commanding, convincing presence, while Palin can’t appear on TV without embarrassing herself.
So is she all? None? Some hydra-esque, horrifying combination of all three? Not exactly.
First of all, Palin is not Richard Nixon. Nixon, the perpetual outsider, rotting from the inside out with resentment for the establishment, would have done (and did) anything and everything to get elected. He craved power and respectability, and whether that meant grovelling at the foot of Nelson Rockefeller — the liberal Republican — to write the party’s platform or embracing the lunatic grassroots infrastructure left over from Goldwater, he would sink to any depths to win. Palin clearly craves power, but leaving her post well before a new primary began to pursue a “media career” shows her as a self-obsessed narcissist, not someone who would crawl over broken glass to be president.
It’s tempting to see Palin as a Reagan figure — a good package with an empty head. But, as I stated above, Reagan went on TV and the country as a whole took notice, in a good way. Palin, perhaps the most easily mockable political figure since Nixon, can’t even make it through the friendliest of interviews without coming across as a complete moron.
We’re left with Goldwater, then, who I do think Palin most closely resembles. As Chris Bowers notes, 10,000 people attended her Minnesota rally with Michele Bachmann. He calls it “Obama-like” in scope. Barry Goldwater, while campaigning, packed Dodger stadium. The grassroots appeal of both figures is difficult to overstate. Goldwater’s campaign invented the small donor, and, as Bowers writes:
Palin’s grassroots strength will provide her with all the funding she needs, and also goes a long way to pre-empting any possible insurgent candidacy against her. This will especially be the case if Ron Paul runs again, since Paul can’t win the nomination but would soak up pretty much all of the remaining grassroots energy on the Republican side. [emphasis added.]
Another striking similarity between Goldwater and Palin is their willingness to surround themselves with complete idiots. After winning the GOP nomination in ’64, Goldwater canned the man most responsible for the win, Clif White, replacing him what the candidate termed the “Arizona Mafia.” (Goldwater being a Senator from Arizona.) Many of them had been with him for years, but had never worked on a national campaign before.
Palin is currently advised on foreign policy by Randy Scheunemann, a close ally of Bill Kristol and former head of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Scheunemann’s lobbying firm recently hired former McCain campaign spokesman and Weekly Standardblogger Michael Goldfarb, who also works for Keep America Safe.
So if Palin is Goldwater, and she runs and loses in 2012 just as Barry did in 1964, where does that leave us? Well, this country has a nasty habit of proclaiming right-wing extremism dead, only to see it rear its repulsive head again before the ink on the coroner’s bill dries. It happened in ’64, only to see Nixon win in ’68. It happened after George W. Bush left office to record-low approval ratings, only to see the rise of the Tea Party. And I think it will happen again after Palin loses in ’12. There will be a New American Consensus, in which Extremism is Repudiated and Benevolent Technocrats are crowned our New Saviors. But, to borrow a phrase, the American Consensus is made to be broken.
My prediction, then? 2016 is going to be a bad year for America. Whoever proves to be the new Reagan is the real danger. The Marco Rubios of the world. Or if Pawlenty can remake himself into a legitimate Tea Party (but still respectably mainstream) Conservative. In short, someone will come along who can convince the Palin psychos he or she is one of them, and convince the pundits that there’s a new kind of conservative in town.
The country has shifted Right over the past 50 years, and will continue to for the foreseeable future. Obama in many ways is closer politically to Nelson Rockefeller than he is to LBJ, and so-called “moderate” Republicans don’t really exist anymore. Right now we’re watching the new Goldwater, but we should be dreading the new Reagan.