Beyond the Palin

Article excerpt

Byline: Rick Perlstein; Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America.

Why the GOP is falling out of love with gun-toting, churchgoing, working-class whites.

The conservative opinion elite is divided--irreconcilably so--about Sarah Palin's decision to quit the Alaska governorship. One faction says good riddance: The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer had already judged her unfit for national office 24 hours before her announcement, and The New York Times's Ross Douthat now refers to her "brief sojourn on the national stage" in the past tense. On the other side, the Post's William Kristol called Palin's quitting a "high-risk move" designed to catapult her to greater public prominence. Taking the longer view, though, the clash is symptomatic of the deepest strategic debate in Republican circles since the disciples of the Reagan revolution captured Congress in 1994.

For decades it has remained a Republican article of faith: white, lower-middle-class, "heartland" masses, fundamentally socially conservative, were an inexhaustible electoral resource. So much so that Bill Clinton made re-earning their trust--he called them the Americans who "worked hard and played by the rules"--the central challenge in rebuilding Democratic fortunes in the 1990s. And in 2008 the somewhat aristocratic John McCain seemed to regard bringing these folks back into the Republican fold so imperative that he was moved to make the election's most exciting strategic move: drafting churchgoing, gun-toting unknown Sarah Palin onto the GOP ticket.

But beneath the surface, some Republicans have been chafing at the ideological wages of right-wing populism. In intel-lectual circles, writers like David Brooks and Richard Brookhiser have argued for a conservatism inspired by Alexander Hamilton, the least democratic of the Founding Fathers, over one spiritually rooted in Thomas Jefferson, the most democratic. After Barack Obama's victory, you heard thinkers like author and federal judge Richard Posner lamenting on his blog that "the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party."

Such discomfort has been dormant for some time. Under the influence of philosophical gurus like Leo Strauss and Irving Kristol, the sotto voce tradition arose of flattering the sort of voter who drove a pickup truck even if he wasn't the sort you might want to socialize with. (Take, for example, "jes' folks" Mark Sanford of South Carolina. Long before his jet?-setting affair, after all, he met the jet-setting, Georgetown-educated Yankee investment banker who became Mrs. Sanford at a Hamptons beach party.) But Palin has raised the "class" question publicly among conservatives as seldom before.

Michael Barone, writing in March on U.S. News's Thomas Jefferson Street blog, noted that the electorate's portion of "under-30 downscale whites" has been stagnating, while the participation of both young upscale whites and African?-Americans generally has spiked upward. The pool is shrinking; thus he thinks Republicans should now focus on wooing upscale whites, banking on their disenchantment with Obama's moves to fix the economy. Author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum recently made the argument, on the occasion of the split between Palin's single 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, and the 19-year-old father of her child, that "it is marriage that creates culturally conservative voters--and young downscale Americans are not getting married. When they do marry, they do not stay married: While divorce rates among the college educated have declined sharply since the 1970s, divorce rates among high school graduates remain ominously high." In a much-discussed blog post titled "Bristol's Myth," Frum cited statistics showing that white women without a college degree are far more likely to have a child out of wedlock than their -college-educated counterparts. …