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The Palin Nomination: What Does It Mean?

Raphael J. Sonenshein

September 16, 2008

Political scientist Raphael J. Sonenshein, professor of political science, is spending this fall semester teaching and collaborating on research as a Fulbright Scholar in France. While there, he is monitoring the upcoming U.S. presidential election and will be sharing his thoughts.

By Raphael J. Sonenshein

I'm in Paris on a Fulbright. So with time zones and stuff, I'm off kilter. But I'm still following things like crazy!

Obviously, the big news is the Sarah Palin nomination. I think it's very revealing, and let me tell you why. I think it says more about the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary Republican party than anything else. Put another way, McCain had to do something like this, and yet it may backfire as well.

The conservative wing of the Republican party is in firm command of this remarkable political party. The Republican party, at least since the defeat of President Bush Sr. in 1992, has been a militant, unified, assertive, ideological party. Such parties have been rare in American history, except among third parties for a short time.

The "base," in Karl Rove's term, is all.

This philosophy does not reach out across party lines. It is partisan and organized and aggressive. It is based on the 51 percent philosophy. If Republicans stayed united, they can beat anybody, especially the Democrats, whether or not they pursue popular policies. Moderate Republicans can either toe the line of the base, or get out.

In 2004, this philosophy passed a major test, when President Bush was re-elected with a large turnout of his Republican and conservative base. Since then, the Bush presidency has collapsed, the economy has gone to hell, the Iraq war is unpopular, but the base remains.

John McCain could have run for the presidency by challenging the hold of the base on the party, as Bill Clinton did to the liberal wing of the Democratic party in 1992. But, I think he determined after his defeat by Bush in 2000 that the base of his party was too strong to be defeated. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. And, so, he resolved to be the most loyal Bush soldier possible, at the cost of his own previous beliefs. That got him the nomination in 2008, but it never won him the love of the base.

Until his party's convention, Republicans were lagging in enthusiasm compared to the Democrats. The base was sleeping, unwilling to rouse itself for McCain. McCain then took a huge gamble and picked an unknown Alaska governor, Sarah Palin. The base exploded, literally fell in love and rushed to help McCain. For the base, the age issue now goes away. At worst, they get Palin as president!

The base has been fed and it is satisfied. But ... now the problems start. Palin solved one problem, but may open up a host of others. For a few days, even a week, the media and the Democrats were completely bamboozled by the intensity of the Republican base's love for Palin and their intense defense of her against all attacks. And yet, Palin's problems (political firings, billing the state for days spent at home and for travel by her spouse and children, lack of knowledge on major issues, etc.) are so numerous that they are beginning to emerge in the daily media accounts of the campaign.

Democrats hope that the Obama campaign is playing a very deep game, letting the string play out on Palin over the course of several weeks rather than jumping all over her all at once. We shall see. Remember, though, that when she was first announced and even when her name was circulated, Republican commentators dismissed her as unlikely and unworthy. Now that the base is on fire, those comments have turned supportive, but there was something there ....

So, what we have is that the Palin nomination put McCain way back into the game, energized his base, and made 2008 a possible repeat of 2004. Don't give an inch to Democrats and independents, pound out the turnout on the right. But, if a portrait emerges of Palin as an ideological extremist with all sorts of ethics problems she will undercut McCain so badly among independents and Democrats that it dooms him as well. It is hard to imagine pro-choice Jewish voters flocking to support her.

For Republican moderates who had hoped that 2008 would be the beginning of the end of the base strategy of the party, the Palin nomination must be a disappointment.

More than ever, it seems that whatever happens to the Republican ticket in 2008, the base will rule.

Sonenshein's blog also appears on The Jewish Journal's website,

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