Are you ready for the great Sarah Palin Revival of 2013? The former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate is back from her exile at Fox News and, like the former child star played by Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the self-described Mama Grizzly is ready for a big comeback. But to be blunt, she seems more like a relic of a bygone, little-missed era in showbiz-cum-politics. Indeed, she no more represents a viable future for the GOP than her 76-year-old “angry bird” running mate, John McCain.
To give her full credit, Palin is talking what sounds like a whole new game. Specifically, Palin is aiming to channel the ascendant libertarian elements of the Grand Old Party. Back in April, for Time’s list of the “most influential people in the world,” she wrote the entry for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who rightly topped the list of political leaders. “His brand of libertarian-leaning conservatism attracts young voters, and recently he inspired the nation with his Capraesque filibuster demanding basic answers about our use of drones,” she enthused, before pulling the conversation back to her favorite subject, herself. “I sent him some caribou jerky from Alaska to help keep up his strength on the Senate floor.”
Over the past weekend, Palin was one of the main speakers at the Road to Majority meeting of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a group of religious Republicans headed up by Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition. During her remarks she took partisan shots at President Obama and his supporters in “their itty-bitty purple Volts,” but she also sounded specifically libertarian notes, disdaining yet more intervention in the Middle East, giving absolution to Edward Snowden for leaking details of surveillance programs, and casting a pox on both Democrats and Republicans. “The problem,” she explained, “is government grown so big that it intrudes into every aspect of our lives ... The scandals infecting [the government] are a symptom of a bigger disease. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a Republican or a Democrat sitting atop of a bloated boot on your neck. With bloated government, everyone gets infected, and no party is immune.”
Palin got her biggest applause when she finished that thought by declaring, “That’s why, I tell you, I’m listening to those independents, those libertarians, who are saying, ‘It is both sides of the aisle, the good ol’ boys in the party on both sides of the aisle, they perpetuate the problem.’”
Yet there’s every reason to believe that Palin’s newfound libertarianism is deeply misinformed, cynically superficial, or some mix of both. At the Road to Majority Conference, she invoked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) as her model legislator. Congress, she averred, should put itself on “cruise control—Ted Cruz control—just for a week.” She’s also voiced similar sentiments since going back to Fox News.
While Cruz may be a reliable fiscal conservative, he’s nobody’s idea of a libertarian, with his McCarthyite denunciations of Harvard professors he claims are dedicated to the overthrow of the government and anxieties about creeping “Sharia law.” Despite being an immigrant and Hispanic himself, he has long staked out a hardline position against opening the southern border of the U.S. to more immigrants. That puts him at odds with not only GOP moderates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and former governor Jeb Bush (R-FL), but also figures like Rand Paul, who has told currently illegal immigrants who have come to work, “We will find a place for you.” Palin herself has sneered at immigration reform, dismissing pending Senate legislation as “a pandering, rewarding-the-rule-breakers, still-no-border-security, special-interest-written amnesty bill.”
Palin also voiced an embrace not just of religion in the public square, but of a very specific Christianity. You know, she told her audience, “this land was dedicated to our Lord God, and he has blessed it, and we do well to rededicate it at this time to our one, true, heavenly Father.” Faced with so many problems, she continued, “we need that divine inspiration. We need to ask that hand of protection and blessings of our Father again to fall upon our nation. Not that we are a deserving people, but that’s what God is all about: grace and mercy and forgiveness. And if we do rededicate our land to our Lord, things will turn around.”
The proper term for this sort of rhetoric is populist, not libertarian. It is long on laying blame on out-groups and evoking feelings of persecution and appeals to divine or great-man intervention. Despite talking about the need for a positive program of action—Republicans cannot simply point out Democrats’ failure, she said—she offered little past clichéd invocations of “restoring” America. Her short record as governor of Alaska offers scant insight into what she really believes in, but it is worth noting that state spending increased 16 percent between 2007 and 2009, belying her claims now about being a budget hawk.
Fortunately for libertarian-minded voters, Palin and Cruz are hardly the only fishes in the sea. As the recent report on young voters from the College Republican National Committee pointed out, the GOP is flush with next-generation leaders, among them Chris Christie, Rubio, and Bobby Jindal. None is more popular than the leader of what John McCain pathetically called “the wacko bird” caucus, Rand Paul, who has not only emerged as the public face of a more libertarian Republican Party, but is working to create a cadre of like-minded legislators, not just a one-man band. As The New Republic notes in a critical but ultimately admiring portrait of the senator titled “President Rand Paul: Watch Out, He’s Becoming a Better Politician Every Day,” he is building up a PAC that will increase his influence and, more important, is giving speeches and authoring legislation—including a federal-budget proposal—that stake out true alternatives to the status quo foisted on Americans by, as Palin accurately notes, past Republicans and Democrats alike.
If the GOP is in fact interested in reaching the youth vote, its timing couldn’t be better. The failure of Obama’s economic plan to reduce massive unemployment, especially among recent college grads, remains a constant opportunity for the Republicans. A new CNN/ORC poll finds that Obama’s approval rating among voters ages 18 to 29 has plummeted by 17 percentage points in the past month, following revelations of politically motivated IRS abuses, administration actions against the AP and other press outlets, and especially the NSA surveillance of phone and Internet data.
But to reach younger voters—and libertarian-minded independents—the GOP will need spokespeople categorically different from Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz. As Vanderbilt political scientist John Geer put it to CNN, “Youth wants to see more tolerance and more inclusion. While the youth has been favoring the Democrats in the past few years, neither (party) should see the partisan leanings of this group as set." The college Republicans found that young voters also insist on intelligence and credibility in their politicians and policy proposals.
The GOP would do well to focus attention on people such as Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI) and Thomas Massie (R-KY). Amash earned the ire of Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) by questioning his party leader’s dedication to limited government, and Amash voted against the fiscal-cliff deal because it increased taxes and spending. An American with Palestinian and Syrian parents, Amash is a University of Michigan–trained lawyer and a principled and outspoken critic of interventionist foreign policy, even when propounded by Republicans. A fierce defender of economic and civil liberties, the 33-year-old Amash not only gets new media and youth concerns, he explains all his votes on his Facebook page.
Massie holds two degrees from MIT, started a successful 3-D-imaging company in Massachusetts, and built his old, off-the-grid Kentucky home with his bare hands, planing the timber himself and decking it out with solar panels. "I tell Republicans,” he told me in a recent interview, “you can hate the subsidies—I hate the subsidies too—but you can't hate solar panels. These are rocks that make electricity, so they are incapable of receiving your hate." Like Amash—and Rand Paul and Sarah Palin—Massie is a man of faith, but he prefers not to talk about religion in a political setting, preferring instead to explain his libertarian tendencies with reference to his business and worldly experiences.
Like Sarah Palin when she first appeared on the national scene, characters such as Amash and Massie scramble seemingly settled categories of liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. They may not be able to toss off asides about serving “moose chili and blueberry pie” (as Palin did at the Faith & Freedom Coalition gathering), but they also present a serious—and specifically—libertarian challenge to both the right and left.