Sarah Palin, Misunderstood Intellectual? Bring Ideas Back to the Republican Party

Did the Alaska governor get a bad rap?

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Sarah Palin has started a PAC, a sure first sign that she plans on maintaining her national profile for at least the next few years (read: Palin '12). A couple of prominent Republican thinkers I saw Tuesday had some interesting comments about Palin and what has come to be identified with Palin-ism (my word, not theirs).

As I blogged earlier, I caught a panel at the New America Foundation on rebuilding the GOP brand.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, John McCain's former policy director, argued that the GOP needed to produce a new agenda of things they believe government affirmatively should do (outside of the old standby, national security).

Wrapping up his presentation, Holtz-Eakin added:

[The GOP needs to get to a place] where certainly we lose the perception that Republicans are not interested in ideas. Somewhere along the way, Republicans, who had made the correct observation that you didn't have to go to Harvard to be smart, and that you could have gone to the University of Nebraska or many other places and have been just as smart as the people who went to Harvard, that message got translated into: We don't need to be smart. We have the values of common people and we can be anti-ideas and in too many cases that has been the label that stuck, that's a damaging label for a party that has been about ideas historically and needs to be about ideas in the future.

Jim Pinkerton, a GOP thinker who worked in both the Reagan and Bush (41) White Houses (and has started an interesting new blog tracking change in the Obama years), picked up on the theme:

The Republican Party historically—conservatives, Thomas Aquinas, Burke, these people were smart. And they read books and they wrote books and if not everybody understood them, that was fine with them. ... These people weren't at all interested in what the masses—frankly, they looked down at the masses. Now that's also the wrong approach but somewhere in there you need room in your movement for brainy people ...

All the talk of anti-intellectualism put me in mind of Governor Palin, as she supplanted George W. Bush as the face of I don't need to be a pointy-head, cuz I've got the values of real America during the recent presidential campaign. (Palin, the college-hopper, brings a distilled authenticity to the role that Bush of Yale and Harvard Business School could not match.)

I asked where Palin and other rising GOP stars would fit into a GOP return to intellectualism. Holtz-Eakin defended the former GOP vice-presidential candidate, arguing that she got a bad rap in the campaign.

The two things about Sarah Palin that I don't think have been adequately appreciated are, number one, if you look at the numbers, she really wasn't that different than Barack Obama in terms of experience and time in office, and [things] like that. The real big difference between the two was she hadn't campaigned non-stop for two years, and had she campaigned non-stop on the national stage for two years she'd have been just as polished as Barack Obama. She's a phenomenal politician and there's no better retail politician on the planet than Sarah Palin with a microphone in front of a crowd. So I think the big experience gap was the one that is about running on a national ticket—he had a lot more experience there and it showed up.

This is not an unreasonable position, but might understate the importance of that experience gap. Preparation is not merely about polish, it's about having thought through the issues that come with high office. As I've blogged before, what we can call the Palin Test is whether you can demonstrate, in the crucible of media interviews and/or debates, that you're prepared for the office you seek. She flunked it. (As an aside, I'd argue that while Palin is obviously enormously talented, Bill Clinton still gets the title of best retail pol with a microphone in front of a crowd.)

Holtz-Eakin's second point:

Most of the Sarah Palin intellectual stance issues came from her defenders and it was the defenders who said We don ' t need a vice presidential candidate who's smart, which was just wrong. You do want a vice presidential candidate who's smart. It's a hard job. I want smart presidents. I want smart vice presidents. I'm for that. She's smart, but the defenders came across with the Nah, we don ' t need that. That's a mistake and that's wrong. It's not fair to her and it's not right about the job.

This is debatable, but he had a much closer view of the Palin show than did I. It seems fair to say, though, that she did little to play down the notion of the values of real America trumping intellectualism.

I'm less skeptical of Palin's smarts, and I think that her critics who dismiss her as an airhead dangerously underestimate the Alaska governor. The more important question is whether she is intellectually curious: Does she want to master the issues or is she content to rely on instinct and "real America" values? I maintain that the smartest thing Palin could do now is hole up for a year or two, learn the national issues while her Tina Fey-ized image fades and re-emerge as a stronger candidate in time for 2012. But judging from SarahPAC, that doesn't seem the tack she's taking.

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