Moderate Republicans—yes, they are not yet extinct, though most are in hiding—scoff at Sarah Palin and wish she would go away. But she's not going away. This week she's going on-air with Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey to flog her new book, Going Rogue: An American Life, and to promote her brand of in-your-face, power-to-the-people conservatism. President Obama is no doubt happy to have her out there on full display. He cannot help but relish the prospect, no longer farfetched, that the Republicans will nominate Palin to oppose his reelection in 2012. A student of history, Obama could be thinking of his predecessor in presidential coolness, John F. Kennedy. In 1963 Kennedy's advisers counseled against giving Sen. Barry Goldwater national stature by posing with the GOP's conservative insurgent at a White House photo op. "What are you giving that SOB all that publicity for?" demanded White House aide Kenny O'Donnell. "Leave him alone," JFK replied. "He's mine." (Article continued below...)
Obama knows the long odds against a right-wing populist winning the presidency, no matter how good she looks in a skirt (or running clothes), brandishing a gun. He shouldn't be too cocky, however, because the death of the center is ultimately a problem for him and the whole country. If the Palinistas seize the GOP, they probably cannot take the White House. But their brand of no-prisoners partisanship sure can tie up Congress.
In modern memory, Capitol Hill has never been so polarized. With conservatives refusing to reach across the aisle, it will be hard to get even the most modest health-insurance reform through the U.S. Senate, where a 41-vote minority can block legislation. Without bipartisanship, forget about reducing the deficit or doing anything meaningful on the environment, immigration, or tax reform.
Diehard right-wing congressmen do not deserve all the blame. Obama tried to foster bipartisanship at the outset of his administration, but he didn't try very hard, and his fellow Democrats can be just as rigidly partisan on the left. Obama seems reduced to fencing with Fox News, which won't get him very far or earn him a place in the history books.
Governing effectively requires a "big tent" approach to politics. To pass the New Deal and win reelection three times, Franklin D. Roosevelt built a coalition of labor, Northern liberals, and Southern conservatives. In a body politic that swings right, swings left—but never too far without swinging back again—it is impossible to win a governing majority without a coalition of true believers and moderates.
The two greatest postwar presidents understood this. Dwight Eisenhower governed in the 1950s by deftly uniting center and right, and Ronald Reagan did the same in the 1980s. They needed to be flexible to the point of gross expediency. To placate the far right, Ike shamefully refused to stand up for his friend and fellow statesman Gen. George Marshall, who was ludicrously attacked by Sen. Joe McCarthy as "soft" on communism. Reagan piously gave lip service to the right-wing social agenda while doing nothing to further it by legislation; he also chose George H.W. Bush to be his vice president and allowed the ultrapragmatic James A. Baker III to run the White House. The "Gipper" talked tough about the Russians--while doing more than any other president to foster détente. With a slyness that belied their smiling patriotism, Eisenhower and Reagan confused and occasionally exasperated their own followers. But it's no coincidence the Eisenhower '50s and Reagan '80s were periods of unusual peace and prosperity.
Since taking office, Obama has so far failed to win the battle for the center. The post-election polls show that the country is, if anything, drifting to the right. Obama needs to win some of those drifters back if he wants to get things done. The Republican right, hellbent on preventing that, aims to crush the last scattered remnants of the old moderate GOP establishment--or any Republican who will work with the opposition. The talk-show shouters are cheering on the final purge, demanding purity.
By definition, populist movements run on a fervor that confuses honorable compromise with appeasement. Everything is reduced to us and them. This is particularly destructive when it occurs within parties. During the Reagan-Bush administration, the Bushes of Texas (but really Connecticut) were never all that comfortable with the Reagans of Hollywood. But they worked at getting along. The easier course is to rant and rail on The O'Reilly Factor. That will get you a big cable-TV audience. But it risks turning off the larger public to politics altogether. And that can't be good for the country.