Criticism from the Right for Palin'She's becoming Al Sharpton, Alaska edition'
By: Jonathan Martin and John F. Harris
March 14, 2011
Sarah Palin has played the sexism card, accusing critics of chauvinism against a strong woman.
She has played the class card, dismissing the Bush family as “blue bloods” and complaining that she is the target of snobbery by people who dislike her simply because she is “not so hoity-toity.”
Most famously, she has played the victim card — never more vividly than when she invoked the loaded phrase “blood libel” against liberals and media commentators in the wake of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting.
Palin’s flamboyant rhetoric always has thrilled supporters, but lately it is coming at a new cost: a backlash, not from liberals but from some of the country’s most influential conservative commentators and intellectuals.
Palin’s politics of grievance and group identity, according to these critics, is a betrayal of conservative principles. For decades, it was a standard line of the right that liberals cynically promoted victimhood to achieve their goals and that they practiced the politics of identity — race, sex and class—over ideas.
Among those taking aim at Palin in recent interviews with POLITICO are George F. Will, the elder statesman of conservative columnists; Peter Wehner, a top strategist in George W. Bush’s White House, and Heather Mac Donald, a leading voice with the right-leaning Manhattan Institute.
Matt Labash, a longtime writer for the Weekly Standard, said that because of Palin’s frequent appeals to victimhood and group grievance, “She’s becoming Al Sharpton, Alaska edition.”
Conservative intellectuals, while having scant ability to drive large blocs of votes on their own, traditionally have played an outsize role in the early stages of Republican nominating contests. Their approval has lent credence to politicians from Ronald Reagan onward hoping to portray themselves as faithful adherents to an idea-driven conservative movement.
This year, the conservative intelligentsia doesn’t just tend to dislike Palin — many fear that her rise would represent the triumph of an intellectually empty brand of populism and the death of ideas as an engine of the right.
“This is a problem for the movement,” said Will about what Palin represents. “For conservatism, because it is a creedal movement, this is a disease to which it is susceptible.”
The line of modern conservatism that can be traced back to National Review founder William F. Buckley would be broken by Palin, Will said.
“There’s no Reagan without Goldwater, no Goldwater without National Review and no National Review without Buckley — and the contrast between he and Ms. Palin is obvious.”
Asked if the GOP would remain the party of ideas if Palin captures the nomination, Will said: “The answer is emphatically no.”
Columnist Charles Krauthammer, without talking about Palin specifically, noted that “there’s healthy and unhealthy populism,” and there is concern about the rise of the latter.
“When populism becomes purely anti-intellectual, it can become unhealthy and destructive,” said Krauthammer.
Wehner, now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, cited the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1980 declaration that the GOP had become “a party of ideas.”
“Conservatives are very proud of that,” Wehner said. “But she seems at best disinterested in ideas or least lacks the ability to articulate any philosophical justification for them. She relies instead on shallow talking points.”
Does Palin care about what conservative commentators say about her? So far, the answer would appear to be no.
After Fox News host Bill O’Reilly cited comments Krauthammer had made about her reality show in an interview with Palin in December, the Alaskan replied in a fake English accent: “Oh, I’m sorry that I’m not so hoity-toity.”
Palin defenders say she has good reason to be dismissive of elite critics — she has outpaced their low expectations at every turn. And while intellectuals may disdain identity politics in theory, in practice nearly all successful national politicians in both parties succeed in part by striking a populist chord — catering to the pride of targeted groups and giving voice to their grievances. So far, Palin has been uncommonly effective at channeling the anti-Washington, anti-establishment energy powering the right since Obama’s election.
But Palin’s skeptics said a successful presidential candidacy would need to be buoyed by genuine policy vision, not merely grievance. For now, however, Palin’s appeal is largely rooted in the sympathy she’s gleaned from her loudly voiced resentments toward the left, the news media and the GOP establishment.
“The appeal of conservatism is supposed to be people taking responsibility for their own actions,” said Labash. “But if you close your eyes and listen to Palin and her most irate supporters constantly squawk or bellyache or tweet about how unfair a ride she gets from evil mustache-twirling elites and RINO saboteurs, she sounds like a professional victimologist, the flip side of any lefty grievance group leader. She’s becoming Al Sharpton, Alaska edition. The only difference being, she wears naughty-librarian glasses instead of a James Brown ‘do.”
Right-leaning intellectuals have been wary of Palin dating back to when John McCain tapped her to be on the 2008 GOP ticket, believing then that her selection amounted to naked identity politics on the part of a desperate and less-than conservative Republican nominee.
“Thanks a lot, John McCain,” wrote Mac Donald at the time. “With his selection of an unknown, two-year female governor as his running mate, he has just ensured that the diversity racket will be an essential component of presidential politics forever more.”
Over two years later, Mac Donald, a scholar at the Manhattan Institute, said of Palin: “She is living up to the most skeptical assessment of her.”
“Practicing identity politics completely undercuts the idea that you don’t have to be white to govern whites or black to govern blacks and that gender and chromosomes are completely irrelevant job qualifications,” said Mac Donald. “It’s just a total rejection of a very important principle which is that race, gender and class don’t matter.”
Asked specifically about Palin’s attempt to woo women through her “Mama Grizzlies” appeals, Mac Donald sighed and complained about “the feminist strain” among even conservative females.
“A lot of women have it, unfortunately,” she said.
Voicing the conservative ideal, Mac Donald said: “The public should stop wanting to see itself reflected in a leader. There is something narcissistic about that. It’s really irrelevant if a political leader has any affinity with my life. The only thing that should matter are ideas, experience and executive ability.”
Palin said some of the early skepticism that greeted her arrival on the national stage in 2008 was in part because of her gender and family circumstances. “When I was tapped for the Republican vice presidential nomination, I got a lot of, quite frankly, sexist criticisms for pursuing the White House while I had a family with small children,” she wrote in her book “America By Heart.” She added, in a chapter called “The Rise of the Mama Grizzlies”: “Some of it came from conservatives who didn’t think a woman had any business being on the campaign trail with young children. I’m used to that; I’ve heard it since I first entered politics two decades ago. But most of it came from liberals who claimed to believe that women should pursue careers outside the home. Because they couldn’t very well criticize me for running for vice president, they resorted to another low form of left-wing criticism: calling me a hypocrite.”
The book is laced with Palin’s appeals to class and gender pride and bristles with diverse resentments.
She sees many parts of the American elite, for instance, as gripped by disdain toward men and women in uniform. (One of her children, Track Palin, served with the U.S. Army in Iraq.) “I wonder if this irony ever dawns on the self-described truth tellers of Washington, the mainstream media, Hollywood and academia: All of the values they hold dear — their ability to speak freely, to criticize and caricature the military, to demonize Christianity and America’s traditional values — mean nothing unless they are defended by these courageous men and women.”
The media and Hollywood, of course, are familiar conservative targets. But Palin swerved into what has more typically been liberal territory when she took a shot at the Bush family. It was the late Ann Richards, for example, who in 1988 said that George H.W. Bush was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
When former first lady Barbara Bush recently observed tartly that she thought Palin would be happiest staying put in Alaska rather than running for president, the former Alaska governor responded on Laura Ingraham’s radio show that the Bushes are “blue bloods who want to pick and choose their winners instead of allowing competition to pick and choose the winners.”
This comment raised eyebrows in GOP circles. According to tradition, the politics of class warfare is supposed to be something that Republicans accuse Democrats of practicing. The reality, of course, is that Republicans, too, have long practiced their own brand of class warfare — usually on cultural rather than economic grounds.
Four decades ago, Richard Nixon said he spoke for the “silent majority” of patriotic and square-minded folk, who felt disenfranchised by hippies and professors and liberal Hollywood activists. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, denounced anti-administration intellectuals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”
Reagan tapped into some of these same resentments, without Agnew’s peevish streak. Palin’s backers see her in a Reaganite tradition — an analogy that observers like Labash don’t buy. He said there are elements of Palin’s persona that he found appealing — including a “gameness to do just about anything.”
But, Labash added: “The downside is her gameness to do just about anything — including co-starring with Kate Gosselin on a dopey reality show. And when she does such things, and is inevitably attacked for it, that’s when you see Palinism really fall down as a political approach, as the cocked-fist self-pity and whining set in.”
Wehner, while calling Palin’s carping about some of her media treatment “understandable,” said: “The concern for me is this culture of aggrievement.”
“She seems to me to be extremely defensive and embittered,” he said, contrasting Palin with Reagan.
“He was not a person who seemed to harbor resentments,” said Wehner of the 40th president. “But she strikes me as a lot more Agnew than Reagan.”source