The Democratic and Republican political parties are quite similar in that they carefully shape their message to appeal to blocs of voters, trying to encompass as many segments as they can to cobble together a majority, while both remain staunchly pro-oligarchy. This strategy required them to pay at least lip-service to the needs of the non-oligarchic population.
But Sarah Palin has taken the Republicans in a different direction and the current party has been largely shaped by her. On an objective scale, she is nothing. A half-term governor who ran as vice-president and lost would normally have been consigned to obscurity. But she sensed the zeitgeist of an influential segment within the party (the social and economic conservative evangelicals) and she loudly and aggressively gave them a voice, the first time they really had one at the highest levels of politics.
In return, the suckers gave her their love (and money) and the party an energy and focus that it did not have with its earlier generation of leaders. This group does not care if someone is young and inexperienced as long as they adopt a rigid ideological stance and an outspoken, confrontational style. Bucking the old-guard leadership of their own party in the phony ‘maverick’ style that McCain and Palin patented is also seen as a plus.
You can see the result. All six of the current crop of Republican candidates (Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum) are the children of Palin, They are on the far right wing of American politics, which is the space that the Republican Party currently occupies, and they all echo her confrontationist rhetoric.
While some of them have tentatively made largely symbolic noises in the direction of broadening the party’s appeal (Rubio with his immigration reform proposals, Jindal with his call for the party to stop being ‘stupid’, Paul with his occasional libertarian stances, and Ryan stating that he now supports gay adoptions), none of them have taken any stand on economic and social polices that could provoke real hostility from the extremist base that the party now caters to, and all have been careful to court them.
Cruz is the one who seems to be the most eager to take on Palin’s mantle of bucking his own party’s leadership, while Ryan’s chances may actually be hurt by being part of the party leadership. Despite the latter’s infatuation with Ayn Rand and his extreme views on economic policies, he may actually be seen by the party base as too moderate, if you can believe it, due to his efforts to be seen as a budget and numbers wonk. For reasons I outlined earlier, I think that Rand Paul has the potential to break away from the pack.
I think the Palin-based approach is going to be a loser at the national level but it is undoubtedly a winner at the party level. How the Republican candidate bridges that divide is going to be tricky. Mitt Romney tried to do it by running as an ‘extreme conservative’ in the primaries and then trying to soften his position in the general election but that did not work, partly because he could not quite shake being viewed as a phony by all sides. This group of six has unquestionably extreme conservative bona fides but may not make even that minimal effort to appeal to a broader audience, since in the climate that has been created any hint of that would now be seen as a betrayal.
I wonder if party insiders have realized that McCain’s legacy is to have draped the Palin albatross around the party’s neck.