Conventional wisdom holds that the Republicans, having conducted their primaries to the Tea Party’s rumbustious tune (composer, Sarah Palin) will now tack to the center in order to present a more broadly electable face to America’s midterm voters—and in particular, to those weird and mercurial creatures known as “independents.” Don’t bet on it.
These have been the Palin Primaries, a fact rammed home deliciously by Alaska’s Republican voters in their “refudiation,” as of this writing, of Lisa Murkowski. What a potent, irrepressible woman Palin is: Only two years ago, she was plucked from obscurity to run alongside the ambling, aimless John McCain. She lit up the party briefly, infusing it with an improbable oomph for a few weeks, before McCain’s handlers, spooked by her inexpert handling of a disdainful media, put her emphatically in purdah. She was a woman scorned, and what we see now is her fury playing out as a form of high-octane political energy, wreaking a form of ideological creative-destruction in places like Florida, Utah, Kentucky, Nevada, and South Carolina (to name but a few of the states where Republican politics-as-usual has come to an abrupt end).
The question facing the Republicans is how best to deploy Palin’s energy for November—in effect, how best to channel the vim of the Tea Party.
The question facing the Republicans is how best to deploy Palin’s energy for November—in effect, how best to channel the vim of the Tea Party. Midterm elections, as a rule, are base-versus-base battles: Both parties will spare no quarter or trick to get their faithful to turn out. For this task, Palin is as close to an indispensable figure as the Republicans have. The Democrats, by dreary contrast, have no sure-fire base-getter-outer. (Does Nancy Pelosi set your pulse racing? I thought not. And Barack Obama? Ask Democrats in tight races whether they want the president stumping for them, and the likeliest answer would be “No thank you—especially not after the mosque business.”)
If Palin is pressed into service by the Republican Establishment, will they ask her to tone things down a tad? Possibly, but it will be a polite, even gingerly, supplication. Palin and the Tea Party now command a right to dictate terms, and having been sidelined once already (in 2008, with disastrous consequences for the party), she is unlikely to be so easily governed again. After all, she secured for John McCain his Senate primary in Arizona, by endorsing him over the more Tea Party-friendly J.D. Hayworth. After that, and after Alaska in particular, she has acquired a quite daunting aura.
• Shushannah Walshe: Alaska’s GOP Civil WarA danger with Palin, it should be said, is that she energizes not one base but two: Her presence on the campaign stage will not only get out the Republican voters; it could also get out the Democrats. It is entirely possible that a full-throttle Palin would be a huge help in rounding up disappointed and alienated liberals and moderates. Yet Palin can hardly be blind to that aspect of her political impact, and it is entirely possible that she will take precautions—including the adoption of restraint in her language and message—when the circumstances so require. She is no one’s puppet; and she is, also, no one’s fool.
Of course, one way to minimize damage to their own side would be for Palin and the Tea Party to come out in full-throated support of all Republican candidates, and not merely of those who have the word “Ayn” set in a heart, tattooed on their forearms. A New York Times report indicates that the Tea Party grows more strategic, and less purist, as the midterms approach. Writing of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks—an advocacy group that has provided much organizational scaffolding to the once-anarchic Tea Party—the paper says: “[The Tea Party’s] candidates are libertarians and economic conservatives, but in the 2010 midterm elections, FreedomWorks is urging Tea Party groups to work for any Republican, on the theory that a compromised Republican is better than Democratic control of Congress.” In other words, primaries, not general elections, are the time for ideological litmus tests, shibboleths, and insurgency.
But what about “independents”—won’t Palin make the GOP much less attractive to them? I put the question to John Zogby, the pollster, who told me: “It is important to be reminded just who the ‘independents’ are. Almost half of them describe themselves as politically moderate and lean heavily toward President Obama and the Democrats.” So this group, it would seem, would spurn the GOP in November, with or without a Palin thrust.
“Of the remaining 52 percent,” Zogby continued, “two in three describe themselves as politically ‘conservative’ but weary of Republicans on issues like spending, civil liberties, and the war in Iraq during the Bush and Republican congressional years. So a conservative message can win their support except they don’t trust the Republicans.”
That would, of course, be the Republican Establishment; and here, precisely, is where Palin can make a difference: I am prepared to wager that many of these “conservative independents” have some inclination toward the Tea Party and its small-government message. So staying “on message”—especially on the need for fiscal conservatism—is more likely to win their vote than a Republican lurch to the center. And since any such lurch will have the inevitable effect of driving the base to distraction, I see the GOP embracing a version of the Palin-Tea Party message.
The Palin Primaries are now behind us. Make way for the Palin Midterms.
Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)