The sense of potential that accompanied Palin’s introduction, and the feeling that she might really reverse the momentum of the campaign, were not illusory. For two weeks or so, the polls moved markedly in McCain’s direction, as it seemed that his running mate was something genuinely new in American politics: a lower-middle-class woman who spoke the language of the country’s ordinary voters and had a profound personal understanding of the hopes and worries of a vast swath of the public. She really did seize the attention of swing voters, as McCain’s team had hoped she might. Her convention speech, her interviews, and her debate performance drew unprecedented audiences.
But having finally gotten voters to listen, neither Palin nor McCain could think of anything to say to them. Palin’s reformism, like McCain’s, was essentially an attitude devoid of substance. Both Republican candidates told us they hated corruption and would cut excess and waste. But separately and together, they offered no overarching vision of America, no consistent view of the role of government, no clear description of what a free society should look like, and no coherent policy ideas that might actually address the concerns of American families and offer solutions to the serious problems of the moment. Palin’s populism was not her weakness, but her strength. Her weakness was that she failed to tie her populism to anything deeper. A successful conservative reformism has to draw on cultural populism, but it has also to draw on a worldview, on ideas about society and government, and on a policy agenda. This would make it more intellectual, but not necessarily less populist.
McCain’s advisers were right about Palin: she was a mirror image of John McCain. She was not a visionary politician, or a programmatic politician, but an attitude politician with an appealing biography. In the end, she was no more able than McCain to offer a coherent rationale for his presidency.
As my readers know, I was an early Sarah Palin fan, primarily on Ross's recommendation; her selection was, in fact, the only reason that I voted for McCain. But Levin's assessment echoes my own private thoughts on watching her appearances: but for Ross's assurance that Palin would be The People's Tribune, I asked myself, how would I know it from what she says? Yes, Palin is a social conservative, but as Levin points out, she was only this in a perfunctory way. It's not that she wasn't sincere; on the contrary, she lived her values in a way that few other pro-life candidates have. But clearly, the paradigm by which she understood the objectives of social conservatism was primarily reactive: she might recognize a bad idea when she saw it, but there was nothing of urgency that she wanted her ticket, if elected, to accomplish in the realm of social policy. But if not social conservative objectives, then what? What would she do? What new policies would she pursue? Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, but I didn't come away from the campaign with a clear answer to those questions. Absent specifics, promises to "control spending" are pretty weak, and everything else was even weaker.
The worst disappointment of all was her silence on immigration. We needed more than just talk of border security; we needed a compeling articulation of why our high immigrant population was undermining our quality of life, our public fisc, and (though this was more than anybody could really expect) our national solidarity. But Sarah Palin gave no evidence that she had thought at all about these and a great many other subjects.
Palin's candidacy shows the limits of populism, and in recognizing this I am putting myself on the side of the elitists. Running the government really does require knowing something about policy.