Monday, March 29, 2010

Podhoretz and Palin and Reagan

Sarah Palin has not been shy of associating herself with Ronald Reagan. She quotes him often, she named her book after his book, and her current activities echo the choices Reagan made in his own wilderness years, maintaining her public profile as a freelance campaigner and a "news analyst".

Arch-Neoconservative Norman Podhoretz has also looked back to this period to find similarities between the two prospective presidential candidates, but in the common reaction to them by conservative intellectuals. Except Podhoretz, of course.

It's hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this "airhead," this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent. They readily acknowledged that his political views were on the whole close to ours, but the embarrassing primitivism with which he expressed them only served, they said, to undermine their credibility.

"I knew Ronald Reagan," he says, "and Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan," but her dismissal by the likes of David Frum and Christopher Buckley is akin to the elitism with which conservative intellectuals met Reagan's candidacy. Except it wasn't, not really. Reagan not only had the long time backing of William Buckley, he also garnered after 1976 the support of the Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. This is part of the essential difference between Reagan then and Palin now. Reagan's media presence had a broad syndication on radio and in the papers, while Palin is tied to the Fox machine and the Facebook choir. Reagan set out to lead a coalition of conservative interests - elites and common folk, intellectuals and dumbasses - while maintaining an independent voice. Palin is positioning herself to lead a distinct populist movement, hostile to any compromising alliance, which will limit her appeal. It might as well be said that Reagan also used his time to travel and meet foreign leaders and counterparts such as the Shah and Margaret Thatcher. Maybe Palin will seek out an audience with Hamid Karzai or David Cameron, but I can't see it appealing to her base.

Of course, Reagan was something of an elite in the late seventies, with tons of money and a Hollywood address book, while Palin is defnitely not. However disingenuously she claims not to be a politician, she can fairly claim to be an outsider. But if conservative intellectuals don't like her, it needn't be because of who she is, but because she does not like them - or represents a movement which does not like or want them, and which seems to have contributed to an atmosphere of constraint over conservative thought. Reagan was never so self-limiting

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