In a Republican Party hoping to rebound in 2010 on the strength of a newly energized and ideologically aroused conservative grass roots, Sarah Palin’s influence is now unparalleled. She was the one who popularized the notion that Democrats advocated “death panels” as part of their healthcare plan, a charge that helped ignite conservative opposition to reform. More recently, in a special congressional election in upstate New York, Palin’s endorsement of Doug Hoffman, an unknown, far-right third-party candidate, helped force a popular moderate Republican politician, Dede Scozzafava, from the race. And now, although her ghostwritten memoir, “Going Rogue: An American Life,” won’t be officially released until Tuesday, advance sales have kept it in the No. 1 position at Amazon.com for weeks.
But there is another side to Palin’s power. During the 2008 presidential race, some Republican elders warned of her destructive influence. They insisted she was a polarizing figure whose extremism would accelerate the party’s slide. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who had written glowingly of Sen. John McCain, said Palin represented “a fatal cancer to the Republican Party.” Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Reagan and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, blasted Palin as “a dope and unqualified.” Last June, Steve Schmidt, the former McCain campaign strategist, warned that Palin’s nomination as the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee would be “catastrophic.”
New polling data appear to support such doomsday prophecies. According to an Oct. 19 Gallup Poll, the former governor of Alaska has become one of the most polarizing and unpopular politicians in the country. Since she quit the governorship to work on her book, her unfavorability rating has spiked to 50% while her favorability has sunk to 40%, according to Gallup’s figures. (The only national politician who is less popular right now, according to the poll, is John Edwards, the former two-term senator who fathered a child out of wedlock while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination.)
If Palin is indeed a cancer on the GOP, why can’t the Republican establishment retire her to a life of moose hunting in the political wilderness? Why has her appeal increased in the wake of her catastrophic political expeditions?
The answer lies beyond the realm of polls and punditry in the political psychology of the movement that animates and, to a great degree, controls the Republican grass roots -- a uniquely evangelical subculture defined by the personal crises of its believers and their perceived persecution at the hands of cosmopolitan elites.
By emphasizing her own crises and her victimization by the “liberal media,” Palin has established an intimate bond with adherents of that subculture -- one so visceral it transcends rational political analysis. As a result, her career has become a vehicle through which the right-wing evangelical movement feels it can express its deepest identity in opposition both to secular society and to its representatives in the Obama White House. Palin is perceived by its leaders -- and followers -- not as another cynical politician or self-promoting celebrity, but as a kind of magical helper, the God-fearing glamour girl who parachuted into their backwater towns to lift them from the drudgery of daily life, assuring them that they represented the “real America.”
Take Palin’s daughter Bristol and her very public pregnancy. Bristol’s drama caught vividly a culture of personal crisis that defines so many evangelical communities. A landmark congressionally funded study of adolescent behavior, “The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health,” suggests that the Palin family’s situation is not uncommon. It found that white, evangelical adolescents lose their virginity, on average, at age 16 -- earlier than any group except black Protestants. In Lubbock, Texas, where abstinence education has been mandated since 1995, the rate of gonorrhea is now double the national average, while teen pregnancy has spiked to the highest levels in the state.
Palin consolidated her bond with the movement by cradling her new son, Trig, born with Down syndrome, on the stage of the Republican National Convention. Palin’s decision to carry the baby to term excited evangelicals and antiabortion activists, including James C. Dobson, who wrote a letter congratulating her for having “that little Down syndrome baby.”
“What a way to emphasize your pro-life leanings there!” he exclaimed during a radio broadcast in which he endorsed the McCain-Palin ticket, even though he had denounced McCain as a “liberal” only weeks before.
After the stock market collapsed in the fall of 2008 and the McCain campaign ran off the rails, Palin untethered herself -- or, as her book title has it, she went “rogue” -- ignoring McCain’s rules on attacking Obama. Instead, she lashed out at candidate Obama in her own distinctive way. “This is a man who launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist,” she insisted. “This is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.”
With these two lines, apparently uttered without the permission of McCain or his top aides, Palin opened a deep schism in the campaign while unleashing a flood of emotions from the depths of the party faithful. And by “going rogue,” she instinctively and craftily propelled her ambitions beyond election day.
Palin now represents both her party’s future -- and the greatest danger it faces.