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Has Sarah Palin saved the GOP?

Sarah Palin addresses the National Quartet Convention in Louisville on Thursday.
Sarah Palin addresses the National Quartet Convention in Louisville on Thursday. (Ed Reinke/associated Press)

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By Paul Goldman
Friday, September 17, 2010

Delaware Republicans have proved it: Sarah Palin is the best asset the GOP has right now.

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There has been a lot of carping about Republicans' prospects for November since Palin-backed candidate Christine O'Donnell defeated longtime Delaware officeholder Mike Castle for the Republican Senate nomination Tuesday. But contrary to conventional wisdom, the 2008 vice presidential nominee has kept the party strong. How? She has kept the Tea Party faithful inside the GOP tent. Had she instead encouraged these disillusioned voters to mount third-party challenges across the 2010 general-election ballot, dozens of Democratic incumbents, not to mention challengers, would be smiling like Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

That year, a simmering feud between two wings of the Republican Party resulted in the "Bull Moose" independent presidential candidacy of former president Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Rider's support four years earlier landed William Howard Taft the GOP nomination, but the two had a falling-out. Their disunity allowed Wilson, the governor of New Jersey, to claim the White House with the lowest winning percentage of the popular vote since the two-party era began in 1864. Wilson was only the second Democrat elected president since the Civil War; a GOP united by a temporary, even testy, marriage of convenience would have triumphed easily. But egos proved too large. It did not matter that Wilson was, in TR's term, the "coiner of weasel words."

Establishment Republicans, including former Bush aide Karl Rove, have said this year that the strength of the Tea Party movement has sometimes forced the nomination of contenders with weak prospects for winning a general election. This is surely right; O'Donnell's upset on Tuesday is merely the latest example, but there were similar complaints about the Nevada Senate contest. But O'Donnell's victory follows a long GOP pattern in the Northeast of established, old-school moderates being denied the nomination in favor of fresh, sharper-edged conservatives, as happened with New Jersey Sen. Clifford Case in the 1978 Republican primary, Sen. Jacob Javits in New York (1980) and, most recently, Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. The bigger picture here is not about a dearth of moderate Republicans in the Northeast. And yes, on Nov. 2, events in Delaware might leave some Republicans wondering what might have been. But this would seem a small price to pay to avoid a massive party split thanks to the protest vote still sweeping across the country.

Consider: If Newt Gingrich or Glenn Beck held Palin's political clout, they might very well have used this power to encourage independent conservative challenges, figuring the resulting GOP chaos would redound to their benefit. Palin rejected this course, even though it probably would have been in her political interest.

Consider also that Palin has received no credit for being loyal to a party establishment that continues to treat her with maximum low regard. Americans have never sent to the White House an individual rejected four years earlier as a vice presidential nominee. So it is doubtful that Palin stuck with the GOP because she hoped to be rewarded with the chance to lead it in 2012. Think about it: A lesser person would have opted for payback, not party.

That the GOP establishment fails to appreciate the debt it owes her is reflective of the elitist outlook that is contributing to Tea Party activism nationwide. Leaving aside the substance of her policies, there is no denying the "populist conservative" roots of Palin's politics. She is a "bottom-up," not a "top-down," leader, a rare commodity on the national scene. Whatever her diva persona in certain respects, conservative voters trust that she speaks from the heart, not a script. They see her as someone out for them, not for herself.

This does not make Palin "Saint Sarah" by any definition. To me, she is a calculating politician, not a true reformer, with policy weaknesses that she tries at times to mask with questionable assertions. When she unexpectedly resigned as governor of Alaska last year, the party establishment hoped the resulting controversy would deflate her clout. Of course, had she been so weakened, the Tea Party Express might have gone a third way in a number of races this fall.

Simply put, Palin started as Tonto but has become the Lone Ranger. Instead of fading out last summer, she remained strong and stood by her party. She has become a bridge between the old Republican guard and the growing right-wing dissatisfaction with not just Democrats but also Republican officeholders. Palin's ability to advocate for using the GOP, not a third party, to channel this angst has allowed Republican voter anger to boil, yet not boil over.

Should Republicans run up the score in November, Sarah Palin will deserve a lot of credit she will never get.

The writer is a political strategist and a former chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party.


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