Have Palin and Sanford damaged the GOP brand?

Friday's topic: Have episodes such as the recent ones with Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford affected the public image of the GOP? Or is the damage more likely to be local?

Palin and Sanford are the least of the GOP's problems
Point: Katherine Mangu-Ward

The modern Republican Party comprises racist white reactionaries, rich CEOs, fat bubbas, self-hating gays and the people who stand by the side of the road with pictures of aborted fetuses -- or so you might surmise from the editorial cartoons of America's few remaining newspapers. This is completely unfair to the GOP, both demographically and philosophically. But if that's the current caricature of the GOP, a couple of wacky governors aren't going to make or break the party of Lincoln in 2012.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, with his odd disappearances and odder fondness for public confessionals, has done some pretty hefty damage to the fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party, and thus (in my estimation) damaged the party as a whole. Until the "crying in Argentina" news conference, few outside South Carolina had any idea who Sanford was.

But if TV viewers had any notion he existed, they knew him as a stimulus refusenik and perhaps as a member of the Republican revolution's congressional class of 1994. Principled dissent from the ideology of stimulus and expansive federal government are now unfortunately linked, at least in the short term, with Sanford's Argentinian rutting. If he had waltzed into the next election season intact, it's unlikely he would have captured the nomination. But he would have brought a sincere, thoroughgoing small-government fiscal conservatism into the mix and forced the GOP to acknowledge that thread in its ideological tangle.

Ideologically, Sanford was an outlier in today's GOP; a maverick, if you will. By contrast, if Sarah Palin were to fall, there will always be another to step up and take her place in the eternal battle against the liberal media, coastal elitism and abortion. If things had been a little different, Palin might have been the ideal singing telegram girl for that message. But no matter who's delivering the speeches, there is little danger of the GOP forgetting to beat the drums of patriotic populism in the coming election.

You'd think Americans would be jaded about political scandals by now. Any voter still surprised to discover feet of clay (creeping out from under the partition of a bathroom stall, for instance) should seem impossibly naive. But instead we collectively thrill to revelations of salacious secrets about our leaders. We enjoy the humanizing effect of a bad photo-op or a stained tie. But we positively adore being shocked and titillated each time we rediscover an essential truth: Our politicians are fallible. These are normal people in suits and flag pins. And we all know that normal people are kind of a mess. They lie. They cheat. They steal. They hit "reply all" when they didn't mean to. They forget to pick up their clothes at the dry cleaner for weeks at a time. They cheat on their spouses and sometimes get caught. They leave jobs hastily, prompting their former co-workers to count the petty cash. Politicians are no exception.

If I weren't such a cynic, I'd hope that in the scant minutes before the Palin mess and Sanford scandal fade from the American consciousness, Republicans and Democrats alike might take a moment to see their elected officials for who they really are -- and lower their expectations.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.

If government were smaller, none of this would matter
Counterpoint: Glenn Reynolds

So what's the picture ahead? Katherine, you're certainly right about the GOP's stuckness. I'd like to see the party run as a party of small government, individual liberty and fiscal responsibility. I'd say that I'm likely to be disappointed, but to be disappointed you need a higher level of expectation than I can muster. On the other hand, the Obama crowd has exceeded my expectations for lousiness already.

I've been reading Inman Majors' novel, "The Millionaires," (what's not to like about a book that's set in the city of "Glennville"?) and in that novel a political consultant remarks that there are really only two styles of political campaign: Back to Basics and A Bright New Day. President Obama, of course, won on the gauziest of Bright New Day campaigns, and is now having trouble as the gauze is ripped away. I'm not sure what he'll come up with in 2012 -- This Time It'll Really Be Bright?

For the Republicans, though, it seems as if a Back to Basics campaign is likely to be the way to go. Perhaps I overestimate people's attention spans, but I don't see hope and change having the same resonance next time around. So what Republican candidate can successfully pull that off?

We've been talking about Palin, and in fact her no-nonsense schoolmarm routine -- "I put it on EBay" -- would fit that well. Many Republicans think Mitt "I've actually run a business" Romney could pull that off too -- but isn't he just a bit too, well, good looking for Back to Basics? So who else can pull this off?

I'm not sure, but I suspect that the Republicans' chances in 2012 will turn on their answer to that question.

Meanwhile, noting the Palin hatred, the Bush hatred and, I suspect, looming Obama hatred, I have a thought on why politics is more polarized than it used to be: It's because people have more at risk. As Jerry Pournelle wrote a while back, "We have always known that eternal vigilance is the price of freedom. It's worse now, because capture of government is so much more important than it once was. There was a time when there was enough freedom that it hardly mattered which brand of crooks ran government. That has not been true for a long time -- not during most of your lifetimes, and for much of mine -- and it will probably never be true again."

Americans used to laugh at the intensity with which people in other countries pursued politics. That was a luxury we possessed because our system kept the government small enough that people's lives didn't turn on who was in power. We've changed that now, and if we keep that change, we're likely to suffer many of the ills that go with it.

Thanks, Katherine. It's been fun!

Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is creator of and hosts "InstaVision" at