The Magazine

The Palin Effect

Her enemies are bellowing like a wounded moose.

Sep 29, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 03 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Now that the dust is beginning to settle from the whirlwind descent of Hurricane Sarah, it may be time to stand back a little and assess in perspective what the moose-hunting beauty from Wasilla, Alaska, has wrought. Things will change between now and November, but she has already had a sizeable impact, and four major themes do stand out:

1. Call off the funeral. Three weeks ago, the wisdom was that the conservative movement was over and done with. It had burned itself out, taking the Republican party down with it, and setting the stage for the biggest explosion of liberal governance since perhaps the New Deal. Ever since November 2006, when the roof quite deservedly fell in on the Republican Congress, liberals have declared that the Reagan Era--first pronounced dead in 1982, then in 1986, then in 1988, then in 1992, then again in 1998-2000, and of course dead for good in 2006--was at long last finally going to receive the burial it deserved.

Around the deathbed, fierce battles broke out, about what was to be done and who was to do it, whether the movement should trend left, right, or center, whether the movement needed to take on new ideas or strip down instead to some idealized prior condition, circa 1994, circa 1980, or even 1964. Battles broke out over issues domestic and foreign; solutions were bruited that urged purging, if not amputation, of competing and varying wings. It was the fault of the right, or the fault of the center; the fault of the theocons, the fault of the neocons, or the fault of the libertarians, who didn't feel people's pain. The Reagan coalition was there in its elements, but divided, like Gaul, into three different parts: There was a preacher, Mike Huckabee; a hawk, John McCain; and an entrepreneur, Mitt Romney. Each annoyed part of the base, and no one thrilled that many. Meanwhile, the party brand languished. Everyone assumed it would take years in the wilderness before it all came together. Then, as of midday on August 29, all of this changed.

McCain's surprise pick of Sarah Palin easily surpassed Bill Clinton's 1992 pick of Al Gore as one of the few transformational choices in modern political history, one of the few that recast and updated the image of the party, changed for the better the way that the head of the ticket was seen by the public, and made the whole ticket more than the sum of its parts. It rebranded the party and fused it together, focused a light on the new generation, and was McCain's make-up nod to the base of his party. He didn't apologize to the base for his previous heresies, didn't promise he might not dismay them with some new ones, but he signaled that he did not see them as enemies, that they were, in spite of their differences, on the same team.

Palin united the right and center, the base and the mavericks, proving the key is not conformity, but a set of large common interests around which different parts, keeping their differences, still can cohere. In this context, it seems now that the message of the 2006 midterms was widely misread. It was not a rejection of the entire conservative project, but of the scandals and misdeeds with which it was burdened: Mark Foley/Jack Abramoff; Hurricane Katrina; the post-invasion mistakes in Iraq. People wanted Change after 2006, and Change was what they got. Bush changed his Iraq policy and seems now on the verge of attaining a victory. He changed his response to domestic disasters, and the new spate of hurricanes has been handled impeccably, with a major assist from Republican governors. Few Republicans have misbehaved lately, at least since Larry Craig was caught tapping his feet at the airport, and the more flagrant scandals have afflicted the Democrats. In the wake of the Palin pick, the numbers in the generic polls started to shift: edging away from Democratic preponderance that prevailed from late 2006 onward, swinging back to the 50-50 (or 49-49, or 51-49) balance that existed through most of the past decade. Republicans may not win, but they will not receive the massive rebuke most expected, and even a slim loss will send the party ahead, energized, and with a new set of leaders. The cause, it seems, was not dead; it was dozing, or maybe hung-over. And now it's awake.