Nope, I’m not happy in the slightest about Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump. I found her troublingly erratic and plain weird during her stint as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate in 2008. Afterwards, she seemed to cast her lot with the corporate-funded wing of the Tea Party, which favored more offshoring-friendly trade deals and desperately tried to obscure its support for amnesty-friendly immigration policies. At the same time, her personal behavior seemed to get even weirder – along with her family’s bizarre (and seemingly continuing) escapades
I see the rationale, though: The Republican presidential front-runner wants to win the Iowa caucuses, and the state isn’t especially fertile ground for his persona and message. After all, many active Iowa Republicans are evangelical Christians and hard-right conservatives. And the state is one of the few that have gained on net from the international trade policies Trump has lambasted (thanks largely to robust agricultural exports).
So for Trump to beat out his chief Iowa rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, he’ll need to peel off some of that faith-based and movement conservative vote, and Palin’s an obvious choice, since the former Alaska governor is a favorite of both. And if Trump wins Iowa, his odds of winning the nomination start looking astonishingly strong. Even a close second in Iowa will look good, for Cruz has emerged by far as Trump’s strongest competitor nationally for the GOP crown. If Cruz fails to win handily with a congenial Republican electorate in Iowa, it’s difficult to understand where he can out-perform, and how many states can help him do so. So from a purely tactical standpoint, the move makes sense for Trump, even though it might not be decisive.
In this vein, the most important passage in Palin’s typically all-over-the-place, over-the-top endorsement remarks was this outburst:
“Well, and then, funny, ha ha, not funny, but now, what they’re doing is wailing, “well, Trump and his, uh, uh, uh, Trumpeters, they’re not conservative enough.” Oh my goodness gracious. What the heck would the establishment know about conservatism? Tell me, is this conservative? GOP majorities handing over a blank check to fund Obamacare and Planned Parenthood and illegal immigration that competes for your jobs, and turning safety nets into hammocks, and all these new Democrat voters that are going to be coming on over border as we keep the borders open, and bequeathing our children millions in new debt, and refusing to fight back for our solvency, and our sovereignty, even though that’s why we elected them and sent them as a majority to DC. No! If they’re not willing to do that, then how are they to tell us that we’re not conservative enough in order to be able to make these changes in America that we know need to be…Now they’re concerned about this ideological purity? Give me a break! Who are they to say that?”
In her own kooky (sounding) way, Palin was both accusing the Republican establishment of being the real fake conservatives, and at the same time reflecting the willingness of many avowed purists to abandon litmus tests and embrace a politician who clearly doesn’t fit their standard mold. Three main, somewhat overlapping explanations have been advanced for this sudden flexibility.
First, farther right conservatives (who comprise an outsized share of the Republican primary electorate just as farther left liberals heavily influence Democratic primaries) have finally become so desperate to win the White House that they’ve made their peace with the idea of compromise – at least for a figure who identifies as a Republican. Second, because many of these conservatives are downwardly mobile or economically struggling white males, they finally realize that the standard GOP platform planks of balanced budgets, lower taxes, and smaller government don’t and can’t address their plight. And third, they’ve simply been blown away by Trump’s forceful personality and thus his credible-sounding promises of forceful, effective leadership.
I’m not sure which theory is the most convincing. But each one clearly contains some truth, and I strongly suspect that we’ll be seeing these new conservative attitudes throughout the primary season – and beyond. The big question is whether Palin can help Trump in the fall, or even in many remaining primary states.
On the one hand, as this insightful post notes, ideological flexibility is nothing new for her; in fact, despite Palin’s popularity with Republican voters who have long valued ideological correctness, she has a long history of taking unorthodox stances on many issues. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Palin can add to Trump’s appeal among independent voters. At least according to one 2013 survey, most of them can’t stand her.
And Trump needs to take another consideration into account. Nothing could be more obvious than his biggest remaining obstacle to achieving the next level of political success – widespread doubts about his own personality and judgment. The liberal commentator Josh Marshall (among others) has noted that unconventional politicians who amass strong poll numbers can fade when it’s time for voters actually to “pull those levers.” When push comes to shove, their worries and uncertainties come to the fore.
Trump of course hasn’t won a single vote yet. If he’s vulnerable now to this prospect, won’t close identification with Palin only worsen the problem? That’s my hunch, and is why I wouldn’t be surprised to him nudge Palin out of sight once the Iowa tally is in. But I haven’t studiously stayed away from the prediction business for my entire career for nothing!