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Nov 20 2008

The future of the Republican Party-4: Palin’s appeal

The radio show This American Life once had an amusing episode about how Americans of Canadian origin somehow immediately know if any person or thing is also Canadian, even if that fact is not at all obvious to anyone else.

David Rakoff . . . claims that there must be a chip in his head — or something like it — that automatically tells him when someone or something famous is Canadian. Lorne Greene? Canadian. The American space shuttle? It has a Canadian-built arm.

The religious right seems to have a similar sixth sense, an antenna that picks up the secret frequency sent out by those like them. While the rest of us were dumbfounded by the Palin choice for vice president and scrambled to try and figure out who she was and what she represented, they immediately sized her up as one of them and embraced her warmly. In the mere five days between her debut as the vice-presidential nominee and her acceptance speech at the Republican convention, she had become their darling on whom they pinned their hopes and dreams.

Palin is rural and attended the Pentecostal Assembly of God church in her hometown of Wasilla. Whatever one might think of their religious practices, such as getting into trances and speaking in tongues, one cannot deny that these are true believers. I know because I have relatives who are Pentecostals and they do not take their faith lightly. People who as adults belong to such churches are not your mere do-gooder Christians, those who value their church as primarily social organizations that happen to also give their lives some spiritual meaning. For these people, Jesus is real and present and speaking to them on a regular basis. The rapture and Armageddon are not some laughably goofy ideas but something they look forward to and pin their dearest hopes on.

So when during the campaign news stories and video emerged of Palin being prayed over by a witch-hunting priest who exorcised her of all demons, some of us were aghast at the idea of a political leader actively participating in such rituals, but the true believers were delighted at this evidence of genuine religion. After decades of being strung along by what they viewed as the false prophets of the Republican party, at last they had a true messiah, someone who would lead them to the promised land of a Christianity-based America. Her carrying to term of her Downs syndrome baby and even her teenage daughter’s unwed pregnancy were seen as further evidence that she was not paying mere lip-service to anti-abortion views. (There were always suspicions that the leadership of the Republican party might well allow secret abortions for their own family members while publicly opposing it.)

So Sarah Palin was seen as the real deal for the religious faithful. At last, they had someone who was truly of them. It did not hurt that she was attractive too. This is why the present battle over the direction and leadership of the Republican Party is going to be rather bitter. It is currently being fought over Sarah Palin the person but the real underlying fight is over whether the large voting bloc she represents is going to continue to be in the top leadership of the party.

Those who oppose her point out that she was significantly responsible for the party’s defeat in the last election.

There is evidence that Palin’s presence on the Republican ticket has hurt McCain with some voters. Fourteen percent of Obama’s supporters say they once supported McCain, and the top reason given for their switch was McCain’s selection of Palin as his running mate.

That is a huge number of defections, probably coming from the old-style conservative wing of the Republican party. For such people, these numbers are a compelling argument that in order to build a winning coalition again, the party has to go back to embracing traditional Republican values and not those of the social values bloc. Republican Kathleen Parker who was one of those old-style conservatives who defected from the party at the last election explains the problem.

Mainstream media conservatives are amazed that Palin and her supporters do not recognize what seems to them to be obvious, that she doomed the party and needs to fade away onto obscurity. They cannot believe that she is instead going in the opposite direction, raising her profile even more, giving a hectic round of interviews with all kinds of media outlets and raising the possibility of running for the presidency in 2012. Meanwhile Joe Biden, her counterpart who actually will become the vice-president, is totally ignored.

Palin is not being delusional in her seemingly feeling that she has a real chance of being the party’s future standard bearer. It all depends on whose opinion you think should matter. A poll taken after the election found that 69% of Republican voters think Palin helped McCain, not hurt him. Furthermore,

Ninety-one percent (91%) of Republicans have a favorable view of Palin, including 65% who say their view is Very Favorable. Only eight percent (8%) have an unfavorable view of her, including three percent (3%) Very Unfavorable.

When asked to choose among some of the GOP’s top names for their choice for the party’s 2012 presidential nominee, 64% say Palin. The next closest contenders are two former governors and unsuccessful challengers for the presidential nomination this year — Mike Huckabee of Arkansas with 12% support and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts with 11%.

Given that Palin clearly loves living the high life (her clothes shopping spree is a good clue) and relishes being in the media spotlight, you can be sure that with poll numbers like these within the party, she is not going to disappear into the Alaskan backwoods.

Brace yourself for the new reality series (or soap opera) that is going to last for four years at least: Sarah Palin, Republican sweetheart.

POST SCRIP: Eddie Izzard on Christianity

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