Alex Massie

Sarah Palin’s Little Platoons

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Danny Finkelstein's column today argues that Sarah Palin is the true leader of the Republican party these days. And he doesn't mean that in a good way:

There is no more eloquent statement of modern Republicanism than resigning office with time still on the clock. Mrs Palin has chosen to talk about power, rather than exercise it. She would rather write a book and give lectures about being a governor than actually be a governor. And her party has made the same choice.

It has cast itself, deliberately, as the opposition, the angry outsider, and it is more comfortable in this role than it is as the party of power...

One of Mrs Palin’s constant refrains when asked about giving up her office is that she didn’t want to practise “politics as usual”. Well, she can certainly be acquitted of that. And there is nothing wrong with unusual in politics from time to time. But for a party that seeks to govern to speak so openly of its dislike of governing, of the people who govern and of the place from which they govern, isn’t entirely serious. All true and all fair enough, in my view. Like Danny I think politics is largely a matter of persuading - or at least reassuring - people who don't already agree with you about everything and anything. This is not the way the GOP sees it at present. Large parts of the party  - or at least the loudest parts of it - continue to think that recent defeats were an aberration and that, once the party has had time to repent of its sins, the electorate will rush back to embrace the party. This is the idea - sorry, the fantasy - that voters turned away from George W Bush's administration because it was insufficiently conservative.

Here then, the party's thick streak of self-pity finds itself blended with a certainty that, despite being outsiders and strivers the party also commands a natural majority in the country as a whole. This being so, the case for reform and rethinking matters is considerably weakened since, what with this being a centre-right country and all that, the pendulum will swing back to the GOP once the Democrats' over-reach themselves and reveal their true, incompetent, colours. This is the Sit Tight & Wait Strategy and, sure, there's something to it. But I doubt it's enough even if it's also true that Republicans will, one day, win elections again. The question is when they'll win.

We're moving, however, from a situation in which, all other things being equal, the balance of probability might favour a Republican to an era in which that may no longer be the case. That may sound like a minor change in the political landscape but its consequences will be pretty significant.

But where does Mrs Palin come into this? Well, she's the poster girl for the loudest, most strident wing of the party. Her star power and appeal to a certain section of the GOP is clear. But is it enough? History and, more significantly, the money suggest that, right now at least, it is not. Outsiders rarely win the GOP nomination and, right now, Mrs Palin is an outsider. Consider this chart, thoughtfully prepared by Nate Silver:

Ron Paul's findraising army was very impressive but it wasn't enough either. A successful army needs its thousands of dedicated footsoldiers, but it also needs its heavy artillery. At the moment - and this, of course, could change - Palin has the infantry but nothing to support it. (Mitt Romney may have the opposite problem: his campaign is all country club golfers but no caddies or greenkeepers.)

The "people" are always on the verge of speaking but never quite manage to make themselves heard while "insurgents" (at least in GOP races) often scare the authorities without ever quite sacking the capital. Unlike Rome, Washington never falls.

Palin may prove the exception, of course. But at the moment - and I stress, at the moment - I'm not sure one would bet upon it. In the end, that is, the GOP will look past her because it will remember that winning elections is quite an important part of a political party's remit. Or, to look at it another way, the longer Palin dominates the stage, the longer the GOP seems likely to remain in the wilderness. If she wins then the party's retreat to adolescence will be a longer and more humiliating experience than it need be.

The problem with Palinalia is that it's really a sensibility, not a true movement and certainly not a political platform. That's fine for talk radio, but it's not enough for a political party that wants to win. The GOP's bigwigs already know this but have to humour Palinalia for fear of being savaged by Limbaugh, Mark Levin et al. How long that lasts may help determine how long the party remains on the outside looking in and shouting very loudly to no-one but itself...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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