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The GOP's Sarah Palin problem

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, November 5, 2010

At their new political high-water mark, Republicans have plenty of reasons to celebrate - and at least one large cause for worry.

On Election Day, voters shattered the Obama agenda of expanded public benefits and increased income tax progressivity, leaving the president to reassemble his goals with glue and tape. During this midterm cycle, Republicans became reacquainted with estranged friends: independents, seniors, college-educated voters, working-class voters, rural voters and suburban voters. The Republican Party will benefit from the infusion of diverse, attractive new leaders, including some, such as Florida Sen.-elect Marco Rubio, with Tea Party pedigrees.

Most important, Republicans have demonstrated that they are not a rump party confined to the states of the old Confederacy, as even some Republican strategists had begun to fear. The GOP did solidify its hold on the South, but it was progress in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania that raises Republicans' hopes for a competitive presidential season. The Bible Belt and the Rust Belt are the winning combination.

But a high-water mark is also a kind of limit, showing where even the cresting floods do not reach. The revolution of 2010 had about as much influence in California as it did in Finland. Even following a historically good Republican election, the Golden State will be served by Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer, giving California Republicans good reason to despair.

And even a vast political victory does not change an iron law of politics: The quality of candidates matters. Serious, mainstream Republican Senate candidates could have won in Delaware and Nevada. But Christine O'Donnell was not serious. And Sharron Angle - warning of "Second Amendment remedies" in case of political loss - was not mainstream. Weak, poorly vetted Senate candidates were the main reason that while Republican gains in the House were historic - the largest in 72 years - gains in the Senate were not.

O'Donnell and Angle were gifts of Sen. Jim DeMint and Sarah Palin to their party. Tea Party enthusiasm and shallow ideological purity were supposed to be better than outdated, "establishment" attributes such as achievement, wisdom or qualification. This approach to politics is expected of DeMint, who has gained national prominence by accusing his Republican colleagues of compromise. Coming from Palin, however, it is a threat to the Republican future.

In the past, Palin embodied the populist style of the Tea Party movement while espousing a fairly mainstream Republican ideology. On economic, social and foreign policy, Palin seldom strayed from a simplified, popularized Reaganism. The Mama Grizzly may have been ferocious, but her talking points came from the Heritage Foundation instead of from shadier corners of the right.

This election season called that perception into question. Palin's support for O'Donnell showed poor political judgment. But Palin went further, also endorsing Constitution Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo in Colorado, one of the most divisive figures in American politics.

Tancredo has made a career of fanning anti-immigrant resentment and lobbing ideological grenades. The people who voted Barack Obama into office, in his view, "could not even spell the word 'vote' or even say it in English." The National Council of La Raza is "a Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses." Miami is a "Third World country." Pope Benedict's embrace of immigrants is all about "recruiting new members," in an attempt at "faith-based marketing." "The guy sitting in the White House," says Tancredo, is a greater threat to the Constitution than al-Qaeda. "If his wife says Kenya is his homeland, why don't we just send him back?"

It was one of the best outcomes of Election 2010 that Tancredo was exiled from any position of public trust. But it is disturbing that Palin found Tancredo to be the "right man for the job." Her endorsement raises the question of whether Palin has any standards for her support other than anti-government rhetoric. Either as a power broker or a candidate in the 2012 election, Palin's increasingly erratic political judgment should raise Republican concerns.

Palin recently took to Fox Business Network to call establishment Republicans "sleazy." "Some within the establishment don't like the fact that I won't back down to a good-old-boys club," she said. This odd mix of Tea Party Jacobinism and feminist grievance has become Palin's operating style. What many Republicans, establishment and otherwise, don't like is this: The leading figure of the Tea Party movement seems increasingly indifferent to Republican fortunes and increasingly tolerant of disturbing extremism.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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