Sarah Palin's long road back

Her return to the national stage comes at a fraught moment for conservative politics

On the long road back

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Keystone Press

Sarah Palin has burst back onto the national stage at the time when her brand of combative, small-government conservatism is reeling from its first political defeat of the Obama era, when Republicans lost what was considered a safe seat in a byelection where Medicare reform was a major issue.

Clad in a black leather jacket, the former Alaska governor and Tea Party darling rumbled through Washington over the Memorial Day weekend on the back of a Harley-Davidson, part of Rolling Thunder, an annual motorcycle rally to honour fallen troops, and then posed for pictures with burly men in leather vests and tattoos. Her tour of the northeastern U.S. has included a viewing of the U.S. Constitution at the National Archives, the estate of the first president, George Washington, at Mount Vernon, and battlefields of the Civil War.

A regular all-American family vacation? Maybe, albeit one in a tour bus emblazoned with images of the Liberty Bell, the Declaration of Independence, Alaskan mountains, and the words from the Pledge of Allegiance, tied together by the theme of “fundamentally restoring our country.” Restoring it from what? Presumably the Obama presidency. At a stop in Fort McHenry, site of an American victory in the War of 1812, Palin rebuked Barack Obama, who called the U.S. military “one of the finest fighting forces the world has ever known.” Said Palin, “It’s not just one of the greatest fighting forces. And I sure hope our President recognizes that. We’re not just one of many. We are the best.”

If this is a presidential campaign, it is one that does not include meet-and-greets with local Republican organizations, or advance notice to the reporters. “I want them to have to do a little bit of work on a tour like this, and that would include not necessarily telling them beforehand where every stop is going to be,” Palin told her friend and Fox News colleague Greta Van Susteren, who was allowed on the bus.

Whatever the case, speculation about Palin’s presidential ambitions has reached a fever pitch. She recently purchased a pricey mansion in Scottsdale, Ariz.—said to be a more convenient place from which to launch a national campaign than Wasilla, Alaska, though it also happens to be close to the new house of her daughter Bristol. And then there is the feature film that a conservative film­maker is about to roll out about her political career in Alaska. The movie is expected to premiere in Iowa—the state that traditionally kicks off the presidential nominating process. A Gallup poll last week suggested Palin had the support of 15 per cent of Republican primary voters—second only to Mitt Romney, who had 17 per cent, while undecideds were at 20 per cent. (For their part, executives at Fox News have said they are not suspending her US$1-million-a-year contract as a commentator, as they have for other candidates who are clearly running.)

Whatever her ultimate intentions, Palin’s return to the national stage comes at a fraught moment for conservative politics. Amid the anti-government backlash that arose from the recent financial crisis and the Wall Street bailout, the Tea Party managed to fuel a hard-right turn within the Republican Party. Indeed, the small-government ideology championed by Palin has dominated the presidential race and congressional politics since it helped the GOP take control of the House in November’s mid-term elections, while pushing many potential Republican candidates to prop up their conservative bona fides. But just as the byelection victory in 2010 of Scott Brown, the Republican who won the late Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat after an anti-Obama health care reform campaign, was a harbinger of the Democratic House defeat to come, a Democratic victory in western New York state last week is seen as a sign that the tide may be turning—and that the Tea Party movement may have peaked.

That win, by Kathy Hochul over the Republican candidate in a seat considered one of the safest GOP strongholds in the country, came as a shock to both parties. The key issue was Medicare—and a plan by the House budget committee chairman, Paul Ryan, that would overhaul the Medicare system that provides government health insurance to seniors. Ryan’s proposal—part of a budget plan that would cut US$6.2 trillion over 10 years—would convert the entitlement into a voucher-like system and have future generations of seniors buy private insurance with government assistance. Within Republican circles, the Ryan budget had become a litmus test of ideological seriousness. When Newt Gingrich launched his campaign and came out of the gate criticizing the plan as “radical change” and “right-wing social engineering,” he was attacked by other Republicans and quickly took back his words.

But the New York election demonstrated that voters, even Republicans, shared Gingirch’s concerns. Pollsters concluded that concern over Medicare was the key reason for Hochul’s win in Republican territory—and suddenly Democrats found a script for 2012. “[Voters] don’t want us to focus on an extremely radical social agenda, which is what the Republicans have been proposing since they took the majority back in the House,” said Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who was recently elected head of the Democratic National Committee. “They don’t want us to engage in an imbalanced approach to dealing with our long-term deficit reduction needs.”

Whether the New York election was the canary in the coal mine remains to be seen. But polls suggest that the Tea Party-esque conservatives are having an influence in Washington disproportionate to the level of support they enjoy nationwide. Indeed, while a recent detailed survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that the most visible shift in public attitudes since 2005 is the emergence of voters who can be called across-the-board “staunch conservatives,” they only make up 11 per cent of the electorate. Like Palin, though, these voters “take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues—on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns,” says Pew’s “Political Typology” report, released in May. “Most agree with the Tea Party and even more very strongly disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance.” These “staunch conservatives” were highly motivated to vote in the last election, according to Pew, and combined forces with libertarians, who make up another 10 per cent of voters. But while they share the same views on reducing government spending, the two groups don’t agree on other issues—such as foreign policy or social values. And the staunch conservatives are the only voters who believe the deficit should be balanced without tax increases. “About two-thirds of Americans say deficit reduction should include both major spending cuts and increases in taxes,” says Michael Dimock, associate director of the Pew centre. “That is a very widely held belief, not just among Democrats. It’s only the staunch conservatives who are drawing the line.”

Likewise, when it comes to Medicare, the Pew survey suggests what the New York election confirmed: that a majority of Americans—70 per cent—want it to remain the same. The Pew survey also identified a separate group of “Main Street” Republicans, about 14 per cent of the electorate, who had diverse views—including concern for the environment, a distrust of Wall Street, and support for government regulation. “The majority of the Republican coalition is not lock-step with the party the way you see it in Washington,” says Dimock.

That doesn’t bode well for Sarah Palin. Her tour is supposed to take her all the way to New Hampshire. No word yet on a stop in western New York.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.