While at first she seemed a formidable force, Sarah Palin, in recent days, has offered her critics the delight of feeling blithely superior as she stammered her way through questions put to her by two network news anchors. But while liberals and progressives revel in the riches of embarrassment that Palin has rendered in her interviews with Katie Couric and Charles Gibson, they're missing the opportunity to exploit the Palin boondoggle for all it's worth.
Taking on Palin's shortcomings on their merits is all well and good but, alas, there are plenty of people, a.k.a. right-wing voters, who don't give a hoot about what she knows and doesn't know, so long as she opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. A bigger bang for the buck exists in exploiting the fissures within the right that the Palin candidacy has exposed.
Yes, a certain cadre of conservative columnists has called on Palin to remove herself from the McCain ticket for the sake of the cause. These folks -- George Will, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, David Frum, Charles Krauthamer -- are mortified by the apparent know-nothingness exhibited by John McCain's vice presidential pick. But in reality, their opinions mean more to their counterparts on the left than they do to the foot soldiers of their own movement. These columnists are the right's own elite -- not the movement conservatives. As John McCain himself sneeringly described them, they are "Georgetown cocktail-party person[s]".
Movement conservatives, on the other hand, will have nothing of this notion that Palin is the problem. McCain's sinking numbers, they say, stem from his refusal to let Palin be Palin.
At the Constitution Day celebration of the Conservative Caucus two weeks ago, I had the occasion to speak with Howard Phillips, founder of the Conservative Caucus and the Constitution Party, the theocratic third party to which Todd Palin belonged for seven years through its Alaska affiliate, the Alaska Independence Party.
"Well, Pat Buchanan did a good column in which he said that she's a great gal, but she's being ruined by McCain, who's making her toe the party line," Phillips told me, in apparent concurrence.
In his September 16 column, Buchanan alleges that, during the Republican National Convention, the McCain campaign called off a meeting that Palin had scheduled with Phyllis Schlafly, the intellectual force behind the New Right's theory and rhetoric (and who will never be acknowledged as such because she is a woman). The McCain people, Buchanan said, said that Palin needed to rest up for her convention speech, but whisked her, instead, into a meeting with Sen. Joseph Lieberman and the American Israel Public Affairs Commitee (AIPAC), one of Buchanan's least favorite organizations on the planet. He goes on to say that Sarah Palin has become a neocon "project."
The neocons, he wrote, "are moving even now to capture this princess of the right and hope of the party."
Richard Viguerie, who with Phillips and Paul Weyrich, virtually founded the religious right, weighed in several days ago with similar sentiments: "McCain has to get rid of these Bush people around Palin," he wrote on Sept. 28, "along with the lobbyists and the folks from the Washington PR firms, and replace them with principled conservatives who have experience making the case for conservatism."
I, for one, have been flummoxed by Palin's sudden inarticulateness on matters for which movement conservatives generally have a raft of pat answers gleaned from their movement's literature. And that's where the problem may indeed lie. As The Guardian's Michael Tomasky recently suggested, it's possible that the reading Palin has done is largely in the journals of the right, and she may have been advised not to mention any of them, thus explaining her ridiculous reply to Katie Couric's question, "[W]hat newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this?" Palin: "Um, all of them..."
In fact, a photograph has surfaced of Palin at her Wasilla City Council desk; before her lays a loose leaf binder open to a publication by the John Birch Society, which made its name opposing both communism and the civil rights movement.
Buchanan suggested that Palin, left to her own devices, shows her true colors. "Sarah Palin is no neocon," he wrote. "She did not come by her beliefs by studying Leo Strauss. She is a traditionalist whose values are those of family, faith, community and country, not some utopian ideology."
Right. Her values lie in a dystopian theology -- but that's a column for another day. Back to Buchanan:
Wasilla, Alaska, is not a natural habitat of neoconservatives.
And her unrehearsed answers to Gibson's questions reveal her natural conservatism. Asked if she agrees with the Bush Doctrine, Palin asked for clarification. "In what respect, Charlie?"
Gibson: "Do we have the right of an anticipatory self-defense?"
Yes, said Palin, "if there is legitimate and enough intelligence that tells us that a strike is imminent against (the) American people, we have every right to defend our country. In fact, the president has the obligation, the duty to defend."
Exactly. The intelligence must be legit and the threat "imminent."
I imagine the same goes for the Supreme Court cases. The cases she would oppose as a movement conservative -- Griswold, which gave us contraception; Marbury, which gave us judicial review, for example -- would tip her hand, should she utter their names. So, instead, she was rendered mute.
At the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., last month, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins told me, "I think there is no question that there was a lack of enthusiasm [for John McCain] among social conservative voters until he made that pick." They trust McCain, those social conservatives, as much as they trust elites like Will and Brooks. "You know, when there was discussion of a pro-abortion-rights running mate, nothing could dampen the base more than that, when 73 percent of delegates to the Republican convention were identified as pro-life," Perkins explained.
And who was one of those prospective "pro-abortion-rights running mate[s]"? Joe Lieberman, the guy for whom Buchanan's "princess of the right" was made to snub Phyllis Schlafly, la doyenne du droit.
If progressives really want to derail McCain's Zig-Zag Express, they'll put as much effort into playing up the backstage drama of establishment v. right wing as they will playing to the hall. Dare the Republican establishment to truly own Palin, and wave her defection from her right-wing colleagues before their eyes.
Don't allow Pat Buchanan to play a normal Republican on TV; challenge him to defend his columns on MSNBC. Make George Will answer to Richard Viguerie's complaint during his ABC News gig. If nobody will do that, e-mail the networks.
Step one: set wedge. Step two: grab mallet.