As Sarah Palin embarks on a publicity tour for her book, conservative commentators have again taken to likening the former Alaska governor to the GOP’s revered conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Palin, like Reagan, brands herself as an articulate conservative.
Both Palin and Reagan were governors from Western states, but the similarities end there. When Reagan entered the White House, he had successfully completed two terms as governor of California and had run for president against President Ford. Palin chose not to complete her first time as governor.
Reagan’s Republicanism was that of the big tent—the kind where contrasting opinions, even on matters like abortion, were tolerated. The Republican party of the 1980s, under Reagan, provided a comfortable home to social conservatives, fiscal libertarians, and intellectual neoconservatives. Although this coalition existed in some form as early as 1968, it was Reagan who knew how to unite the center-right and the right. Today, Palin commands the allegiance solely of modern social conservatives.
“I know you can’t endorse me,” Regan announced to a gathering of thousands of evangelical pastors in Dallas, “but I endorse you!” Reagan, however, was ultimately a pragmatist. He also endorsed illegal immigrants living in America’s “shadows,” granting amnesty to 3 million of them, and he endorsed supporters of nonproliferation, signing an arms reduction agreement with Gorbachev. The Gipper even endorsed opponents of a 1978 California initiative to ban gays from working in the state’s schools. Reagan’s advisors in the White House were not Moral Majority crusaders but fellow pragmatists.
Whom does Sarah Palin endorse? She endorses challengers to Republicans who are not of like mind. Palin’s endorsement of third-party candidate Doug Hoffman over the nontraditional Republican Dede Scozzafava in New York’s 23rd congressional district is tantamount to backing a party purge. Asked about the Democratic victory in a district the GOP has controlled for over a century, Palin said, “I’m glad to see this.”
Reagan was a leader devoted to new ideas, one who poured through books and policy papers to hone his conservative policies. Here, too, Palin lacks Reagan’s thoughtfulness. Reagan could articulate straightforwardly why negotiations with the Soviet Union were necessary. Palin, on the other hand, can’t speak coherently even on a hot-button issue like Israeli settlements. “I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon because [the] population of Israel is going to grow,” she said this week. “More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.” Her ignorance that the settlement debate revolves around “natural growth” and not immigration is unacceptable for a politician who resigned from public office to focus more on ideas.
Despite Palin’s disavowal of her infamous Katie Couric interview, which she admits “wasn’t a good interview,” that terribly wincing moment for the Republican party when Sarah Palin could not name a single Supreme Court ruling she disagreed with, other than Roe v. Wade, of course, is shameful and should disqualify her from serving as the Republican party’s spokesperson. It should not take prepping by campaign handlers for any American, let alone one at the center of the nation’s political arena, to repudiate Plessy or Korematsu. Does the Alaskan school system not teach Dred Scott? “Gotcha” questions or not, Reagan would not have blundered so.
Reagan helped to relieve the country of the malaise that had plagued it since the 1970s and to revitalize Americans’ love for their country and interest in government. It is hard to imagine the Great Communicator ever going rogue.